Insiders and outsiders
In rural America, there are two groups: insiders, who have lived in rural America all their lives, and outsiders, who have not. It is as simple as that, but as complex as any human relationship with self-defined superior and inferior perspectives. In the changing rural economy, as new businesses and new people move in, there is a need for insiders to be aware of this natural human tendency to place another outside one's circle of friends, simply because you haven't known them all your life.
I was born and raised in a small Oklahoma town so I assumed I'd be an insider. I first witnessed this social hierarchy as a grade school student. We had "farm" and "town" differences even in a very small community. As a farm kid from a poor but proud family, I thought I was equal to everyone else. I recall the reaction of teachers who were placed in a delicate situation when I wanted to engage in the educational process and go ahead of some of my town classmates. I was in the fourth grade before a new teacher (an outsider) encouraged my hunger for learning and achievement.
I taught school in a western Oklahoma community that had a solid set of permanent families. I was embraced as the new agriculture teacher, although most of my "new fangled" ideas were not. There was no discussion of how to grow wheat or raise cattle, as they had been doing so in the same manner for generations. If they engaged in a new enterprise for an FFA project, however, they were quite receptive to input from an outside source.
At the first school board election after my arrival, the two candidates were very different. One was active and outgoing and had many ideas about the way the school could better the learning experience for the students. The other was very quiet and laidback and really never said anything. On Election Day, the quiet man won easily. When I asked why, I was informed that the other guy was "an outsider" who had only lived there for about fifteen years. In some communities, if you aren't born there--no, if your parents aren't born there--you are never truly accepted as one of them. You can marry in, but you'll always be an outsider although your children may make the grade to inside status.
This seems laughable, but it creates a divide in many communities. The logic seems to be that the new people, who have only lived there for one generation, don't have the best interests of the community at heart. It really can't be called class warfare as wealth is not always inside or outside. It seems to be a ring of "social justice" that keeps those who enter a community from ever truly feeling accepted by it.
On the other hand, some rural communities can be quite inclusive. The town of Postville, Iowa was determined to welcome its new citizens who were Hasidic Jews that owned and managed a large kosher meat packing facility. It is a requirement of Jewish law for those of the Hasidic sect to remain separate, but it wasn't easy in Iowa! The story of separation, then intersection, then co-existence is related in a wonderful book called "Postville, A Clash of Cultures in Rural America" by Steven G. Bloom.
Most communities in rural areas have had no in-migration in a century. A few people from businesses and schools come and go, but the structure has stayed intact and usually declined in size. You can identify these areas when everybody is related to everybody else. A newcomer has to watch his mouth, as any comment about any citizen will get back to them from the relative to whom it was delivered. This stratification is hard to break without a large influx caused by a new industry or the town becoming a bedroom community or a retirement haven.
The easiest way to disturb the status quo in rural America is with aggressive behavior. This is not tolerated, even among insiders. The best example is a farmer who expands a farm or livestock operation to the perceived detriment of his neighbors. The community will then form up against the enterprising farmer. Often disaffected neighbors, old and new, will lay down their differences and unite to stop a hog farm, feedlot or even an ethanol plant.
Psychologist Val Farmer says the simple act of a new family bringing the wrong dish to a church dinner and upstaging the matriarch can have lasting social repercussions. Who says we have lost all our tribal instincts!
If we are aware of our tendencies, perhaps we can better deal with them. It is said that the old favor stability and the young favor change. Most rural towns need new business and industry to survive but the residents fear disruption of their lives. The new residents should be sensitive and respectful of those who were born and bred in a town, but the lifers should not expect them to defer on matters of importance. Once change is set in motion, it takes active participation to steer it to benefit all concerned.
Editor's note: Ken Root is now celebrating his 34th year as an agricultural professional. His career began as a vocational agriculture teacher then turned to agricultural broadcasting and writing as well as environmental consulting and association management. He was the original host of AgriTalk (1994-2001) and now is lead farm broadcaster for WHO Radio in Des Moines, Iowa.