Learning To Become Part Of A Rural Community

Finding social health in an isolated, rural setting can be a lonely venture for the new farmer, but the relationships can blossom in the most unexpected of places.

by Rodney Wilson
PHOTO: Ken Slade/Flickr

The moving truck’s oversized wheels met the graveled driveway—our graveled driveway—with an eagerness that matched the pull we’d felt for years to the agrarian life. Our new farmstead sat in front of us, and as we brought the vehicle to a stop, our eyes took in the overgrown pastures and open fields and saw only the potential ahead of us.

We didn’t glance in the truck’s rear view mirrors as we left (metaphorically, I mean—of course we drove safely), but here’s what we drove away from on that fateful day: a corner lot in a bustling college town, a storefront business we’d started 12 years prior, and a group of dear friends who didn’t understand why we were moving to the middle of nowhere to raise pigs and chickens. It was a full life, but we felt ready to take on the next thing—the thing that had captured our hearts and minds over the course of the last few years.

Our first night in the Civil War-era farmhouse, we found ourselves excited, nervous and … lonely.

This is a hard reality of farming. They don’t let you raise large animals too close to the city, so in pursuing dreams of self-sustenance and food independence, new farmers are more likely than not to land in a lonely part of the landscape. The closest neighbor may live a car’s drive away or use their land for recreational escape on random weekends. Going into town is an all-day affair that requires planning and forethought; for many, running for sugar or a cold sixer just isn’t an option.

Our farm is 15 miles from town. The farmhouse sits a mile off a busy (if treacherously windy) road, and the next postal address is a minute’s stroll from our own mailbox. Realistically, we aren’t alone by any definition of the word, but we can go many days without speaking to a person who doesn’t share our family name.

While those first few weeks on the farm were emotionally challenging, we did, in time, learn to redefine our concept of community. Neighbors stopped by to introduce themselves, write down their numbers and warmly offer up assistance; I’d venture to say this is fairly universal in rural communities. And though our city senses kept us from calling those numbers right away, we did, in time, learn to pick up the phone and ask for help when we needed it.

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Before moving to a rural community, I read something by a farmer/author who claimed that country people lose their sense of distance: They just drive until they get there. While the first few months saw us feeling exhausted by our infrequent, 20-minute trips to town, we eventually stopped timing trips home from the grocery store (podcasts on the car stereo helped). Library days, too, became an important feature of the week: free programs provide opportunities for social interaction that work with our limited financial situation. I can attend a writer’s group while my children sit in book-club discussions and story hours. My parents, who live on the farm with us, found new friends in a local church community. We signed our children up for a homeschool program at the YMCA and met a group of like-minded parents who quickly became friends, despite the 40-minute drive between our houses.

Hands down, though, our most important social experience takes place at the weekly farmers market, where we stand behind our booth and talk for hours with people interested in and encouraging of our work. This, for me, is key to living an often-isolating agrarian life: It’s encouraging and affirming to be thanked for all the dirty, back-breaking work central to farming. We made fast friends with other vendors and have been invited to parties, given concert tickets and even networked for freelance work from behind our humble booth.

In time, we became those country people who lost track of distance. Our children participate in programs that require us to drive for an hour every Saturday morning, and that’s just what we do. Meet ups with friends last hours instead of minutes, to offset drive time and general infrequency.

It works, but some days I hate it. I think that’s OK. Not everyone is cut out for this life, and I’m the first to admit I may not be one of the chosen few (feeling trapped is a debilitating emotional condition). But none of that detracts from the fact that I did something I felt was important, learned skills I wouldn’t have possessed otherwise, and for as long as I maintain it, puts something good into this world in the form of sustainably raised, market-available protein. If I do something else in a few years, no long able to sustain the sacrifices that modern society demands of the farmer, I’ve still done something most folks haven’t. Nobody can ever take my experiences away from me, and I think that’s one of the best reasons to make the leap and choose to be a farmer.

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