Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rural Social Landscape Changes

January 3, 2005

Being neighborly - it is not the same as it used to be. Of course it isn’t. Nothing is. Rural people still hold their neighbors in high estimation and know they can be counted on when help is needed. Yet, the old-fashioned twice-a-month community socials, drop-in visits when entire families would call on each other and the Saturday afternoon visits to town have gone the way of the horse and buggy.

Technology and economics change the way we socialize just as much as the way we work. What are some of these inexorable changes that change the social fabric of the countryside.

Busyness. Modern farm families frequently complain about their fast-paced lives with full calendars and few minutes to spare. Larger-scale farming, necessary to compete in the farm economy, means more and more time is spent doing all the things that need to be done. The leisurely lifestyle that used to be associated with farming doesn’t exist as a part of today’s reality.

Many farm families are forced to rely on off-farm jobs to supplement their farm income. Managing a farm, raising a family, and working off the farm is a large order. There is precious little time left over for community and neighborly activities. Leftover time - what there is of it - is usually targeted at children’s activities.

It is not just the demands of farming. With fewer farmers in the countryside and out-migration of young people, the families that are left bear a greater burden of community and neighborly service.

Mobility. Modern means of transportation and good roads give rural families a wide range of mobility. This enlarges the geographic neighborhood to include trade center communities and where people go for shopping, medical services or entertainment. As a matter of economic necessity, some farmers also bypass their own local communities in search of cost advantages in their business.

The social fabric of rural communities within commuting distance of a major city are also weakened when newcomers settle in and are not integrated into the community. The urban commuter doesn’t understand the concept of being neighbors to the people around them while keeping their focus on their family, church community and work friends.

Prosperity. With increased prosperity, farmers need each other less for equipment and labor exchanges. Wealthier families and larger operators don’t get involved in the local community as much when they buy or hire everything they need. When their needs as larger operators becomes quite different from their neighbors, it is difficult to make exchanges equal. With the wider disparity of incomes in agriculture, neighboring breaks down.

Television, internet, video games and home entertainment. When rural families are asked about the decline of neighboring, they invariably mention television. Television occupies people’s time and distorts their sense of place. In addition to television, the vast array of home entertainment options continues to burgeon.

The local neighborhood pales in importance to the electronic global village to which television and the Internet provide easy access. Instead of families dropping in for card parties or conversation, the evening is often spent with electronic guests from far away places.

Fewer children. Children bring families together. The decline of farm families, the shrinkage of small town economies, and a declining birthrate rob a community of its child-centered social gathering. School consolidations and realignments expands the child’s and consequently the family’s world well beyond the local community.

A new community is gerrymandered and a pattern of activities is created that bypasses the older, physically closer neighborhood. neighborhoods. The time demands involved in driving children to distant activities also takes time away from neighboring.

The combination. Add all these factors together: busier people, off farm employment, independent people, fewer farmers, fewer children, more commuting, teenagers with mobility, families with home entertainment centers, children with more choices and activities. No wonder it is easy to talk about the "good old days" but not be in a position to do anything about it.

Rural neighboring still exists. Despite everything, rural families still retain a sense of connection with each other, with the community and they honor the values of neighboring. It is rooted to the land, place, church and family. The traditions and values placed on neighboring are carried forward from generation to generation.

These values need to be made more explicit and actively preserved to prevent further erosion of what rural families regard as fundamental to their way of life. If the tradition of neighboring is lost, rural communities will become sterile bedroom communities, places where people work and not the epicenter of a distinctive and rewarding way of life.