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Seeing rural America

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AMERICANS have become increasingly concerned about the economic crisis in rural America. Tragic events such as farm foreclosures, farm owner suicides, and assaults on bank loan officers have garnered nationwide headlines. We may well feel a legitimate concern for those touched by these tragedies. At the same time, we can increase our understanding of the situation by viewing it within the context of ongoing change in the rural landscape. What we need is a realistic view of rural places. An intelligent appraisal of what we see in the countryside, the landscapes of rural America, reveals changes that need not be considered threatening.

The magnitude of concern for the farm crisis suggests that we are seeing more than just a rational reaction to an economic challenge. We are witnessing the public perception that values represented by the American pastoral image may disappear. The unspoken fear is that the perceived rural virtues of independence, hard work, and stable social conditions will decline with the family farm. It is as if people are questioning: If old barns, wood stave silos, and windmills vanish, will our rural heritage be next?

Some of this feeling represents a historic dichotomy in American thought that has equated rural areas with stability and urban places with social disruption. Personal tragedies in rural America often get more attention than those in cities because social instability seems incompatible with our image of farm country. In truth, prevailing social conditions affect both rural and urban places.

Rural America has never been the scene of a stagnant social or economic life style. Scientific agriculture and mechanization have increased harvests and decreased the need for labor throughout this century. Larger farms worked by smaller families have led to farm landscapes that look different.

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