For many people, Australia is a travel destination dream. The country colloquially known as Oz was certainly on this Kansas girl’s bucket list when I applied for a Rotary fellowship for graduate school after getting my degree. So, I was perplexed when locals in the rural Australian town where I eventually moved asked, “Of all the places in the world you could go, why would you want to come here?”
I laughed and wondered why they would have such a negative view of where they lived—in a pretty area not far from the Blue Mountains, Sydney and beaches. But I had heard people back home in rural America express a similar sentiment: We live in the middle of nowhere, so why would anyone want to move here?
Farmers, ranchers and others involved in agriculture often serve as “agvocates,” promoting and advocating for the agriculture industry. Agvocates share information about farming practices and answer consumers’ questions about where their food, fuel and fiber come from.
But some of the same people who eagerly tell the story of agriculture spin a more negative tale when speaking about their rural towns with visitors and new residents. Instead of discussing positive trends and community spirit, they focus on comparing the town to the way things used to be, pining for a restaurant or hardware store that closed years ago, or extolling all the reasons why the town used to be great.
Ben Winchester, a sociologist who is featured in this week’s cover story, says it does a disservice to potential new residents when we hold onto negative narratives about our rural towns like these. Rural is in the middle of everywhere, he says, and people don’t move to rural towns out of pity. They move there for what the community has now and what it will become.
A December 2018 Gallup poll asked, “…if you could live anywhere you wished, where would you prefer to live—in a big city, small city, suburb of a big city, suburb of a small city, town, or rural area?” The results may surprise you: 27% of the Americans surveyed indicated a preference for living in a rural area, followed by a suburb of a big city (21%), a small city (17%), a town (12%), a big city (12%) and a suburb of a small city (10%). The remaining 1% did not express an opinion.
People do want to live in rural places, so why would those of us already living here try to convince them they don’t?
Ask the newcomers in your town why they chose to move there and you’re likely to find a more positive rural narrative to ponder. How might your rural town change for the better if newcomers are engaged and get involved in the community?
This isn’t about being a Pollyanna or minimizing the challenges facing rural America. But the future of rural towns depends on people recognizing all that rural has to offer and helping to change the rural narrative.
Shauna Rumbaugh can be reached at 620-227-1805 or firstname.lastname@example.org.