County Lines: The Rural-Urban Divide

Act 1: Although the term Urban Sprawl was coined in the 1930’s, by the ‘70’s, it was a hot topic, as increasingly more rural areas, and farmland, were divided up and paved over into strip malls and subdivisions.

This spreading ring around our cities where urban sprawl is happening is officially known as the Rural-Urban Fringe. Today on County Lines, producer Renee Wilde takes us there.

The Rural-Urban Fringe is a transition zone between town and country, where rural and urban uses meet, mix.…..and sometimes clash.

In 1969, Mary and Robert Boeck, along with their 3 young sons, moved their dairy operation to a 178 acre farm in Jamestown, Ohio. Back then, the area was a thriving farming community.

Mary, now 88, and two of her sons, David and Tim, are gathered around the her kitchen table in that original farmhouse. Her son’s describe when they first moved here.

Tim reflects back on that time, “Well, Hogs were prevalent in this area this area because a lot of corn in this area, so it was hogs and beef cattle.”

David adds, “And once we got up here, what, for six months probably, Dad went down to Spring Valley until we transformed the hog barns to cattle barns to move the dairy herd up here.

Mary’s husband got cancer in ‘91. Tim tells me, “When dad passed away, David and I then rented the farm from mom and started grain farming and raised a few head of cattle.”

David and Tim are now in their 50’s with families of their own and urban sprawl is pushing in on the land that they have farmed for past five decades. The Boeck brothers wanted to preserve their farming heritage their kids and grandkids.

David says,” On the other side of the county they’re building up more and more, and there is less and less farm ground. Sooner or later you’re gonna need to feed the people and you’re gonna need the ground. So we just thought this was a good opportunity to join the block around us and create a larger area that would be preserved agriculture.“

The Boeck brothers joined with some of their surrounding neighbors, and put their property into a farmland preservation easement with the help of the Tecumseh Land Trust, a non-profit group that works with local farmers to preserve Ohio’s farmlands.

David estimates, “There are six or seven farms that’s joined up here that are all together now.”

Tim adds, “There’s a couple thousand acres all together now.”

During the 4 year process to secure the easement, the Boecks could see the urban sprawl growing closer to their farmland.

Tim explains, “There’s a farm about 2 to 3 miles from here that was split up into housing development. It was a very, very productive farm, and we hated to see that……….disappear.”

The sound of a small airplane roars above the farm fields surrounding the Boeck's property. The plane belongs to a local resident who bought a piece of that neighboring farm Tim Boeck was talking about.

When that former farm was divided into around 20 different plots, three pilots bought land to build homes with adjacent private grass airstrips.

Jeff Stintson was one of the first. He says “We were looking for a place in the country, and this whole farm used to be one big farm, 500 acres and they started dividing it up and I thought well I can make a nice strip there, so I bought that and built the strip.”

Jeff and fellow neighbor and pilot Dewey Davenport, are sitting in lawn chairs outside a large pole barn filled with vintage biplanes on Dewey’s property.

Dewey explains why these plots of former farmland were perfect for them.

“If you notice pretty much every airplane that’s in here is an antique, and their made for grass runways, and short takeoff and landing type flying,” Dewey says. “So it’s about a quarter mile long. It’s a perfect length.”

As the 20 or so lots from the original sale of the farm continue to be re-subdivided and sold, more houses and barns are cropping up on the road.

Jeff looks around at the houses lining the rural street and says, “ We’ve been in our place for 8 or 9 years now, and we’ve seen it, where you could look down the road and see one neighbor, and now I’m seeing 6 or 7 houses.”

The irony isn’t lost on them that the same continued sale of farmland that allowed them to build their country airstrips, may also be the reason they get pushed out of the area eventually.

As the rural-urban fringe continues to push outward, it’s gobbling up farm land at an amazing speed. Since 1950 over 7 million acres of Ohio farmland have been lost. Only two thirds remain.

Through their preservation easement, David and Tim Boeck know that their will farm will be one of those that remain for the next generation.

Tim explains, “ We’re not in it for the profit. We’re in it cause we like the lifestyle. We like to see plants come up in the spring. And we like to see plants be productive.

We want to see the ground survive. We want to see it remain productive.”

His brother Dave agrees and adds, “You know, it’s in our best interests to take care of everything, and preserve the resources.”

County Lines is WYSO’s new series focusing on small towns and rural communities in the Miami Valley and beyond. Community Voices producer Renee Wilde travels down the highways and back roads to bring WYSO listeners stories of country life that go beyond the stereotypes. County Lines is made possible by a generous grant from Ohio Humanities.

Act 2: Looking out over the rolling farm fields from the front porch of his 94 acre farm in Gambier, located in Knox county, former Kenyon College professor and former Director of the Rural Life Center, Howard Sacks reflects on what the definition of rural character is, and what it means to him.

My family operates a farm in Knox County some fifty miles outside the city limits of Columbus, Ohio. Over the past few decades, urban sprawl has come our way, transforming the rural landscape and small villages into suburban developments and commercial strips. Driving past the miles of decorative fencing surrounding a gated community, my wife Judy sighs, “So much fence, so little livestock.”

The rural character of this county is still visible all around me. I see it driving down township roads surrounded by open green landscapes, rolling fields and pastures, that are punctuated by the occasional farmhouse and clusters of outbuildings. I hear it sitting on the front porch of my farmhouse at night, surrounded by silence and the occasional sounds of nature beneath the heavy darkness of a starry evening sky.

But along the next road west of our place, the fields have been split into five-acre lots, and the lights from modular homes and starter mansions now dim the night skies. The new influx of residents to this rural community like the idea of living in the country, but don’t care much of the scents of farm life, or the sounds of machinery during harvest time, that are a practical part of living in the country.

In the face of this transformative change, the local citizens in our town convened a public dialogue about the future of our community. The primary goal was to preserve the rural character of our county.

But what is rural character?

For most Americans, “rural” means little more than the absence of what we associate with urban life, from cultural amenities to social diversity. The federal government defines rural simply as low population density. But, these definitions fail to capture the distinctive elements that constitutes a rural way of life.

Much of Knox County’s economy still relies on agriculture. The grain silo at the farmers’ co-op remains the tallest building in the county seat. Implement dealers still sell and repair farm equipment like tractors, hay elevators, and brush hogs. The county’s rural heritage embodies a distinctive set of cultural values: neighborliness, hard work, and independence.

Rural character also denotes a certain kind of sociability, an intimacy rooted in connection to place. Old-time farmers speak of knowing the inside of everyone else’s kitchens a generation ago, when neighbors would take dinner together as they moved from farm to farm in collective labor to bring in the harvest. Today, neighbors still gather at the grange hall, but its members, like the overall farming population, is aging and grange membership is in a rapid decline.

In simple terms, rural character means seeing the night sky, working the land, knowing your neighbors, and valuing community. We’ve lost much of this in modern society, at a great cost to our individual and collective well-being.

Today, longtime residents don’t quite trust newcomers who won’t bother to get to know their neighbors and treat the area as a bedroom community or weekend retreat. In response, the new residents often find their older neighbors a bit standoffish.

My daughter plans to take over our farm in a few years, and I worry that she won’t have the same opportunities as the past generations, or be able to experience the rural character of our community they way we have, which has given us so much peace through connection to the land and to our neighbors.

Howard Sacks is former Professor at Kenyon College and former Director of the Rural Life Center, who farms with his wife in Gambier, Ohio.

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.

Act 3: Today, as part of our series called County Lines, we have an opinion piece. It comes from Steven Conn, the W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Conn is a regular contributor to the Dayton Daily News and the Huffington Post and a frequent lecturer in the US and around the world on a variety of topics. He’s also the editor of Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.

He has these thoughts about attitudes and public policy toward immigrants in southwest Ohio:

I’m a city kid born and bred and so it probably isn’t a coincidence that I became a specialist in urban history.

These days I find myself living in Yellow Springs and teaching in Oxford at Miami University. My drive to campus is a remarkable cross-section through the Miami Valley – from one small town to another, with the city of Dayton and acres and acres of farm fields in between.

My commute through the region has convinced me that American cities may have something to teach us about the fate of rural America.

When I grew up in the 1970s Philadelphia was a pretty tough town. I didn’t understand that what I saw as a kid was a city on the ropes, pummeled by big forces: factory closings, systematic disinvestment, and population loss.

But by the time I started to teach twenty years ago a funny thing happened. Many cities began to turn around. Neighborhoods that had seemed to be in irreversible decline stabilized. People started moving back. Investment returned too. Even in Dayton, the population loss seems to have stopped, according to the Census Department. In Philadelphia I can’t afford to live now in some of the neighborhoods my parents told me to avoid when I was a boy.

Large swaths of our region today feel a lot like the urban America I grew up in. We all know about the epidemic of drug addiction and the rise in crime that has come with it. But underneath that crisis has been a slower erosion of economic and social health. People are leaving. The poorest counties in Ohio are all rural.

There are lessons here I think for the rural parts of our region. One of them is the importance of immigration. Before millennials and empty nesters showed up in American cities, immigrants – from the Caribbean and Central America, from West Africa and East Asia –moved into urban neighborhoods and laid some of the foundations upon which the urban renaissance has been built.

Here’s where politics and policy matter. Dayton has energetically made itself an immigrant-friendly city and Dayton’s immigrant population has doubled in the last ten years helping to stem decades of population loss.

Rural Ohio, however, isn’t so hospitable. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data shows that immigrant deportations across the state actually rose 36% in 2017 even while they declined nationally. And Ohio’s rural voters have supported politicians aggressively hostile to immigrants.

Representative Warren Davidson from Ohio’s 8th district, wants to end birthright citizenship, for example. And Butler County sheriff Richard Jones has become nationally famous for his anti-immigrant histrionics. Both won re-election easily. Meanwhile, a farmer I talked to late in the summer told me he had closed up his vegetable operation because his Mexican crew wasn’t coming back.

Last year I taught a class on the history of small towns in America. My students were struck by how painful it is for many in rural America to acknowledge the challenges these areas face.

One of my students, after interviewing many long-time residents of a small Preble County town, remarked: “Nostalgia is a powerful drug.” He’s right. It lulls people into thinking that our best days are inevitably behind us and makes them feel threatened by change. At its worst, nostalgia turns quickly into destructive anger. That narcotic plays a significant role in our politics today.

Immigrants will change our rural communities and that change clearly frightens some of us. But as the experience of American cities shows, that change might well be the key to reviving our country-side.

Steve Conn is the W.E. Smith professor of history at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.

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