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Eric Bergeson

Down on the Farm: Yes We're Still Dead

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Last week was an awful week for rural America--at least if you watched the news.

First, the United States Postal Service announced the possible closing of 3,700 post offices, many in sparsely populated rural areas.

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Second, Delta Airlines announced that it was cutting service to at least twenty-five smaller markets.

Finally, researchers released a study of the 2010 Census figures which revealed that only 16% of Americans live in rural areas, an all-time low.

The above hard facts triggered the news organizations to send their cub reporters out to find real-live people willing to whine on camera about the changes.

Doom and gloom. A way of life is dying. The kids are leaving for the city. No jobs back home. Tumbleweed bounces down Main Street and nobody who lives here is spry enough to catch it.

The story won't die. National press organizations love to send their crews out here every few years to see how dead we are.

Of course, they never present the whole story.

First, the post office closings: With email, electronic banking and electronic paying of bills, isn't it inevitable that post offices will be squeezed?

Doesn't the USPS have to figure out a better business model, one which might include more counters in grocery stores and other ways of cutting costs to match the reduced revenues?

As for the airlines, service to small towns has been supported by the government for years with Essential Air Service (EAS) subsidies.

Whenever an airline cuts service, mayors and businessmen howl up a storm. Senators and congressmen then swoop in to cook up some additional subsidy to keep the airlines flying empty planes to and from towns to which nobody wants to fly.

It is an old story, and one that will keep recurring.

As for the decline in percentage of people living in rural America, it is worse than the statistics indicate: Rural, in this case, was defined as an area having fewer than 50,000 people!

That's a big city to me.

No, the real story is that the rural America of people's imaginations has been dead for decades. The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie countryside culture built by the pioneers began to decline in the 1930s and never stopped.

Kids leaving town? Most high school graduates from small towns have fled to the suburbs since the 1950s.

In fact, one senses that the process is nearly complete.

For better or worse, the countryside has been transformed from a lively, messy collage of 160 acre farmsteads into a streamlined, efficient, endless sea of farm fields punctuated only by an occasional slick, well-mowed complex of bins, offices and gigantic machinery sheds.

It is over. The old countryside is dead. The old-timers are almost all gone.

Now, those of us who have chosen to stay are starting something new.

In fact, things have already gotten better in the countryside over the past few years.

The internet has put us in touch with the world. You can read 10 newspapers before breakfast in your cabin in the woods.

We ain't ignorant rubes no more.

For better or worse, cable television has buried rural children with precisely the same trash children get in the suburbs.

You can order your basic needs online and have them delivered to your door by FedEx, UPS or the USPS.

No, we don't have immediate access to big box stores or urban style coffee shops. But such amenities aren't far away.

What's an hour drive, anyway? I know people in the suburbs who spend a two hours in traffic every day just getting to and from work!

Last Sunday evening, I went for a walk down the gravel county road that runs past our land.

The air was still. You could hear the corn rustle with the slightest breeze. The birds sang. The insects in the potholes buzzed. The smell of clover wafted up from the ditch.

But what amazed me the most was that I walked the entire four miles without hearing a single sound from an internal combustion engine, even in the distance.

No planes overhead, no droning truck tires, no horns, nothing.

There are people who spend tens-of-thousands of dollars to get that far away from it all!

And I get it for free.

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