What’s Your Definition of Rural?

With millions of dollars in federal funding at stake, it's no wonder demographers, economists and politicians worry about how to define rural. Maybe it’s time for a less scientific survey of rural classifications.  Timothy Collins provides a list of his favorites. What’s yours?

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Current discussions about defining rural are serious despite the backdrop of political-economic tragicomedy. (Here are a few recent examples: 1, 2, 3.) After all, how to distribute the government dole for a vital business sector is important for the economy and political camaraderie, even as the federal budget shrinks.

With all due respect, folks at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service have spent a good bit of effort developing wonderfully useful rural typologies that illustrate a diverse rural America. But maybe it’s time to take a different, unscientific approach to rural, just for the heckuvit. 

So, here are some alternative ways to define rural. (Add your own in the comment section or on the Daily Yonder Facebook page.). These definitions may not be precise enough for determining eligibility for federal rural development programs, but most of us will intuitively know these places when we see them:

Rural-Equals-Agriculture – U.S. rural policy got a bad push in 1909 when Teddy Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission equated rural with agriculture. The commission failed to consider farmers’ relationships with towns and cities and their businesses and services. Oops.

Most folks who define rural as “flyover” country get a little higher off the ground than this crop duster near Chalybeate, Mississippi.

Flyover – Commonly defined to describe how airline passengers ignore the space between destinations. Too bad. Flyovers can teach much about geography and land use, including transportation networks. Rural is not “residual” here. It is predominant, in all of its shapes and forms.  

Agribusiness – From the air, you can see how much land is in agriculture. On the ground, you might see how few farms there are. Many cover thousands of acres. These agriculture major leaguers are global, with clout in state capitals and Washington. Agribusiness has usually advocated a rural-equals-agriculture policy and does not push too hard for rural development. Too bad, since most of these farmers need other income sources. 

California Dreamin’ – Wonder where the lettuce comes from on such a winter’s day? Could be from here and other parts of the Southwest: lands of leafy veggies, grapes and citrus. Oh yes, and dairy. Many of the hands that prepare these foods are those of migrants. Worries about water? Hope you like your wine dry. 

Southern-Style – Cotton, sugar cane, fruits and vegetables, catfish, poultry and other commodities. See Agribusiness.

We-Think-We’re-Rural – Can you spell r-e-s-o-r-t? Plunked into the middle of a beautiful rural area, these urbanized fantasylands concentrate glitz, amenities, shopping and fun. They’re all about real estate, atmosphere and ambiance. Resorts want visitors, lots of them, year ‘round. Trouble is, most people who work there can’t afford to live or play there.

Russell Lee/Library of Congress
Shepherd with his horse and dog on Gravelly Range Madison County, Montana, August 1942.
Home-on-the-Range – Ranches on the high plains need vast grasslands for their livestock. Their relationship with the federal government, which controls leases on public lands, creates conflicts. Federal efforts to create wildlife habitats are explosive. They shoot wolves, don’t they?

Country-Lifers – “Smaller is better.” Farmers in this group inherit a forgotten Country Life Commission legacy, farming as a way of life. They are the majority of farmers, but their total farm income is small compared with agribusiness, and they rely on off-farm jobs. They are more likely to be part of the “know-your-farmer” set, interested in local and regional food markets. Non-farm Country-Lifers work in a city or town, but retreat to their country homes to get away from it all. Give these folks the simple life.

Maritimers – “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea…” that has been damaged by pollution and fished out by mega-trawlers. These places might be able to conjure up tourism trade. They are truly lovely, at least until the rising ocean, spurred by global warming, floods them.

Energy-from-and-by-Fossils – Human ingenuity has developed energy supplies that once were inaccessible with improved technology (brute force). Coal getting harder to mine? Blow off the mountaintop. Natural gas? Frack it. Crack the rocks, inject noxious chemicals, get the gas and let someone else worry about purifying the increasingly valuable water, for a profit of course. Oil shale and pipelines? What are a few more scars on the Earth? After all, power – finding and burning it – corrupts.

Played-Out-and-Left-Behind – After the natural resource is gone, jobs go away, leaving people in poverty. Even if reclamation is done well – and many firms do their best – the water table is destroyed. The soil may support crops or grassland, but re-establishing forest is difficult, if not impossible. Wildlife habitat is good. But remnant economic activities after reclamation cannot support many people.

Alternative-Energy-Ripe-for-the-Picking – For awhile, corn ethanol was good for rural America’s economy. But bringing marginal lands back into production increases soil erosion. Then, there’s the transition toward growing corn year after year without rotation, which is hard on the soil. And don’t forget about higher food prices since corn and its byproducts are used in so many foods. Of course, soybean oil added to diesel fuel makes the fumes smell a bit like French fries, but it’s not edible. There are lots of other sources for ethanol, including grasses and wood chips, plus some decomposing materials can produce biogases. But don’t get your hopes too high. The words for today and the foreseeable future (whatever that is) are nonrenewable fossil fuels, oil and natural gas, with a bit of coal thrown in. Hope you like unstable weather.

Main street in McEwensville in Central Pennsylvania, population 278 in 2011

Townies – We don’t care for big cities, although small cities (over 2,500) are considered urban. Go figure. Here, you can go a mile or so from the center of town and be out in a cornfield or the woods. The lucky places have a grocery store, gas station, bank, doctor, home-style restaurant and other services. Most important is the school, especially the sports. Oh. And the police chief’s cell phone is an echo of Mayberry; it plays the Andy Griffith Show theme.

Windy-and-Sunny – Wind and solar are unlimited. They might be costly, but the cleaner environment is worth it. New power lines or energy facilities on the landscape often create controversy. The objections are understandable. But what’s to be done? Wind and solar are clearly preferable to living near a coal-fired power plant. Panaceas are hard to find.

Bitter-at-the-Losses – Changes in rural America have created too many losers, including farmers and factory workers disenfranchised from the land and their jobs. Economic and political discontent festers in the former “middle class.” Who’s left to blame? Global corporations that abandoned rural places? Or government, now following business by running away? Both?

Rural-Slums-and-Hollow-Shells – The buildings are there, paint peeled, windows broken. A few may still be occupied. The only business is the Post Office, and it may not be there long. If you like to feel depressed or like to see ruins of architecture past, visit these places. Take pictures. Learn the local history. Or make up stories about lives lived here, because they’re going, going … 

Underground-Economy – Off-the-record cash and barter exchanges are common, along with perpetual garage and yard sales. Taxes are ignored. Small problem. Far worse, and much more corrosive, is the illegal drug trade. This isn’t the folklore of hemp behind the barn. It is a big small business whose chemists and distributors effectively hide in the broad landscape. They make good money while taxpayers support police, drug rehabilitation and prisons. This is the really dark side of entrepreneurial rural life.

Really? Cast members of Duck Dynasty try to blend in with the crowd.
Reality (?) – Shows – In the 1960s, we had some good small town fiction in Mayberry. Now we have rural “reality” shows. Duck Dynasty is popular, really popular. OK…. But what about Swamp People, Moonshiners, and Gator Boys? Speaking of the “vast wasteland,” Amish in the City and Amish Mafia, have a common denominator of zero. (Remember, you can’t divide a number by zero.) 

Just-Leave-Us-Alone – People who live in the country or small towns like their space. Rural areas have their share of loners, some relatively normal and some not. As for the survivalists and people with pit bulls who live in the woods (or in town), the reality is that there’s no escape from it all. The best hope is occasional solitude, or some semblance of it. 

Places-and-Nature – Grand views are wonderful. But many of us don’t have that backdrop, so we savor simpler things: Cycles of sun and moon and changing weather. Days and nights blend into seasonal fallow, planting, growing, and harvesting; leaves that come and go; sounds of rainfall, sifting snow, and wind; morning birds in spring and summer; calling geese and other waterfowl at dawn and dusk; or the changing chorus of insects as summer passes. This is the romantic rural America so many love and cherish, wherever we find it.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.



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