During our Community of Practice conversation today, I shared that the top response to the interest survey question, "Which of the following do you feel like you have something helpful to share with the group?" was "A deeper understanding of the variety of rural context and the strengths & challenges of each." There was interest in the group to use this forum to share out respective contexts to begin to build a shared knowledge of the different types of rural context and to name the strengths and challenges we are all seeing in our respective context. So please share in response to this question a one paragraph response that tells us about your rural context, its strengths and the challenges that you are facing.
Sharing our Context
I live on a 23 acre heavily forested ridge in a very rural part of central Virginia surrounded by horse, cattle, goat and chicken farms. The closest towns are Pamplin (population 200) 17 minutes south, Appomattox (pop 1,800) 25 minutes west and Farmville (pop 8,000 but more than ½ are college students) 30 minutes east. My development interest lies with Pamplin which is on the endangered cities list for Virginia. If you stroll down the old commercial corridor, most would pronounce this town dead. All the buildings were abandoned until last week when a new ice cream parlor opened up and quickly became my favorite community asset! There is a renovated train station that serves as a community hub and prior to COVID the community was sponsoring a monthly barn dance, weekly yoga and in the summer a farmers’ market. With Yoga returning last month it feels like this sleepy little town is starting to reawaken. The yoga instructor, Mary Cush, just purchased one of the abandoned properties and wants to use if as a community gathering/farmer coop type space. We are all excited to see where this story goes from here. The strength of this community is its people and the beauty of the natural environment which is attracting a growing number of relocators like me. I have offered to support Mary in her development efforts but unlike my coaching and consulting work in the city of Richmond, this is a very personal interest and the hat I am wearing is "Wendy the new neighbor on the hill."
I live on 5 acres of woods, surrounding by several hundred acres of woods, on a small island on Lake Michigan in the US. We are a 30-minute ferry ride from the mainland. Our tiny community has about 700 full-time residents, a couple thousand people who have a second home here and come for the summer and/or vacations, plus numerous visitors who vacation or come for the day. People here are very creative.... lots of musicians and artists, plus people being creative about coming up with different ways to earn money. Much of our economy is based on tourism. We were one of those seasonal folks - We've had our house for 15+ years and moved here full-time 3+ years ago. We're excited these days because there are a number of new babies being born, which means their parents - young couples/families - are staying here and choosing to raise their children here (at least for now). Biggest challenge right now is internet.... expensive, unreliable, not fast, doesn't reach everywhere.
As we like to say here... "we are it"....meaning if we want something to happen, we all have to make it happen. As a result, lots of engaged folks.
I live in the house that my great-grandfather built in 1898, after living in the "Pig Shed" (a sod and wood home) for 10 years, on this homesite. My family owns 880 acres, and the land is in a family trust, that my mother and aunt each receive a small stipend from the cash rent to cover the costs associated with retirement and aging. I grew up in this house. (It was modernized in 1959 - plumbing, electric, structure, and appearance. (My grandmother lived here until she moved to assisted living when she turned 100. She fell off a cream can taking down her Christmas decorations. She died before COVID at 103.) The farmstead is now the responsibility of me and my wife, Laura. We had our first date here, 15 years ago, and we were married and will be buried on the farmstead.)
We are surrounded by agri-business - RoundUp ready corn and soybeans. We have an ethanol plant 10 miles to the SE, and a sugar plant 40 miles to the northeast. (My neighbors say that they grow "Rum and Cokes." I have known my neighbors - Liberty Grove Township - and the farmers who rent our land since I was born 60 years ago. There are no strangers here. (And, over the past 50 years, our region has lost 75% of its population.)
We don't have the labor force necessary to upgrade buildings or infrastructure, so we are all jacks of all trades and masters of none. Meaning that things are built to be "good enough." My wife and I replaced the roofs on three outbuildings, tore down and rebuilt a garage, and this summer we'll put steel siding on a Quonset that we have nicknamed "Moby Dick" and will replace all the wiring in the house, replace ALL of the plumbing in the house, add a full bathroom, in the next 12 months. We seek the advice, support, and counsel of our neighbors when we run into unknowns. They are very willing to advise, loan us tools, and even work alongside us if we feed them well enough.
My wife and l run our international consulting businesses from the farm. And, are enjoying making "this old farmstead" livable for the next 50+ years, to pass on to the next generation.
I am married to my high school sweetheart and we have lived in the county we still call home for our entire lives other than being away at college, but this was still home. We couldn't wait to get back. I lived in the corner of the county bordering two other counties until I was 17 and my parents sold the family homestead. The total population of the county is 48,000. Eight years ago we moved from one side of the county to the other and now live in a small golf community just out side of the largest town in the county, pop. 9,000. I didn't think I would like living with houses this close, but there are only 85 homes here and we are a close neighborhood that really takes care of one another. I recently took over coordinating the Cobblestone Directory so I could get to know my neighbors even better. It has been fun.
Noble County, IN is 41% manufacturing in its employment followed by education, retail and 4th being agriculture (there goes THAT myth that we all live down on the farm!) The manufacturing here is heavily automotive so we took a pretty big hit with COVID, but we are back to the pre-covid significant issue of WAY more jobs than workers to fill them. Unfortunately, we have had people flat out tell us they are "taking the summer off" because they can "get a job anywhere whenever they want." The problem with that is that we have already lost two major employers and another line from a third. They are going where they can get workers which means the people who WERE working just lost jobs in which they had gained seniority. They have jobs but are starting at the bottom of the totem pole again. It's rough to watch.
Housing ... lack of it ... is a big issue here. It's worse now than before COVID. Many landlords here are small business sort of landlords and the moratoriums completely took them out. Several sold the homes and walked away. Don't get me started on the horrible trickle down impact of moratoriums. Our people are in serious debt from riding that for so long and we're now working with them to try to get them out of that trench.
I'm attaching a Mission Insite report that's fairly accurate except I don't fully agree with the diversity status. We have a pretty significant population from Mexico (our home town is 52% or higher out of 4600 or so people) and there is a significant population from Yemin here in Kendallville. We have a lot of Amish folks, as well. Other than that, it's pretty accurate, but I just ran it and haven't taken a deep dive yet.
Now I'm off to start a staycation in which we will explore our county and surrounding area on foot, on bikes and in our Jeep!
This week I'm moving to a town in Maryland called Easton. It has about 16,000 people. Easton is about 40min from Annapolis and it's on Route 50, the highway that takes people from Baltimore and DC to Ocean City. Since I haven't moved in yet I don't know the specific strengths and challenges yet. So far I've been living in a 50acre farm in Princess Anne (3,500 people) with one of the lowest income per capita in the US that's about 1hr from Easton.
I just started a new job, managing a network of 5 co-working spaces, there is one in each small rural town, the two smallest have about 4,000 people (Chestertown and Denton). It is an experiment because each town is unique as well as the community in it.
I've noticed that every community is focused on their own and hardly pays attention to what is happening next to them. It feels very similar to the case study on the East Shore in Canada. The challenge is to build a more regional community between the small towns.