Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Emerging Threats To Rural Lifestyle

March 15, 2010

Rural life is celebrated for its hospitable people, neighbors that care, labor exchanges, participation in community activities and family life. The bonds that tie rural people together are interwoven with the strands of church, school, community and strong family values.

The hometown quality of rural life depends on one-to-one relationships of trust and dependency formed in many settings as people function in multiple roles.

Disruptive forces. Historically, the automobile and the telephone played a role in changing rural communities and rural social patterns. These technological advances facilitated community contacts, but also provided an avenue for rural people to enlarge their scope of interactions across longer distances. As a result, the small towns gave ground to larger trade centers for community and business activity.

Today there are new and more modern technological and economic developments that pose even greater threats to this distinctive rural lifestyle and mutual interdependence.

Television and electronic media. Rural values, community identity and participation are being supplanted by an electronic global village and perspectives from an entertainment oriented mass culture.

Technologies such as television, computer use including the Internet, video games, DVD’s and videocassettes offer a compelling range of passive entertainment in the home on demand. The need for neighborly social visits is not as great when there is an electronic guest available at our fingertips.

Even if all this programming were superlative, they still have a harmful effect. These choices displace and replace family and neighborly activities that shape the values and cement the bonds between people.

The programming itself, by and large, reflects a broad sampling of homogenous pop culture and a low common denominator of values appealing to a mass audience. Then there is the advertising, seductively packaged in upscale wants and high production values to entice us to be consumers of more and more "necessities." Rural children are exposed to materialistic and hedonic values that suggest status and success usually not available in rural communities.

The news programming also orients rural people to national and international issues and concerns, perhaps at the expense of a decreasing interest in regional and local issues.

Off-farm employment. With the economic pressure on families in agriculture, off-farm income is seen as a necessary step in maintaining a viable rural lifestyle. Many men and women who out of necessity seek off-farm employment, along with those women who enter the work force for reasons of fulfillment, are no longer available to serve the community. They will find their new social circle and friendships to be increasingly centered through their contacts in the workplace.

There is little time for visits with neighbors and to exchange labor to the extent they were formerly

accustomed. Trying to farm, having a family and personal life, and working an off-farm job subtract from the time and energy people have for social contacts and community service.

Economics. Economic conditions in agriculture continue to reduce the number of small and medium range farms in rural communities. The countryside is emptying. The reduction in farms and farm families affects rural main street businesses and reduces the need for services.

The growing economic disparity and competition for land among farmers themselves also breaks down patterns of neighborly interactions. The operator farming on a large scale has different concerns, needs and values than the small operator. It is hard to work out truly reciprocal exchanges. The large scale operators solve their need for labor through capital investment and hiring farm workers.

Large scale operators operate more efficiently when they use their purchasing power to full advantage. In many cases this means by-passing the local community in favor of the best business deals. E-commerce skims off some of the bigger customers.

Community patterns and loyalties are also weakened by absentee owners and non-family corporations in agriculture. Their social and business commitments to the local community do not compare to local and family-oriented operations.

Telecommunications has led to centralization and consolidation of other business activity to larger trade centers. Local, entrepreneurial enterprises are forced to depend on marketing to ensure a customer base.

Values to preserve. If rural communities are to retain their distinctiveness, cohesiveness and neighborliness, they need to consciously promote rural values both in the home and in the community.

- Strong extended families, ethnic and religious communities need to pro-actively transmit values and history from one generation to the next.

- Communities and groups need to celebrate together.

- People need opportunities to come together, know one another, share their common understandings about life, and cherish each other.

- Young and old need to get and stay involved in community service and leadership to preserve rural institutions and quality of life.

- Young people need to be exposed to local models of success and excellence.

- Local and regional economic development is needed to support lifestyles where there is enough time and leisure to promote personal interactions, neighborliness, and a pursuit of community goals.