Suburban Perspective on Rural America

We’ve been living in rural North Carolina now for just over 2 months, and as one might expect things are a bit different here that need some adjusting to. Some things like a big sky unhindered by buildings and skirted by mountains are easy; other things like drivers who refuse to go 1 mph over the posted speed limit on rural roads are going to take some time to get used to. And still more things no longer seem odd – like the sound of gunfire and the sight of men carrying guns with deer season starting next weekend.

We came here expecting to see poverty, and we haven’t been disappointed. The rural cities and towns we’ve seen so far are drying up. This particular part of the state was once famous for furniture manufacturing; today the factories are crumbling as furniture making has gone overseas. As those jobs left, so did the businesses that supported their workers, providing them with everything from homes, to cars, to services like plumbing and HVAC.

This area has always had a backbone of agriculture. We live at the dividing line between tobacco and cotton. Unfortunately the former is a dying business although an elderly friend has hopes that the medicinal properties of tobacco will help save the business, while the latter must compete with Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern crops that are often heavily subsidized by their governments.
Some corn, soybean, and chicken farms still operate in the area, but given the state of the tractors, homes and cars owned by these farmers, I don’t begrudge their agricultural subsidies they receive from the government as much as I have in the past.

The area receives a number of elderly people returning from the cities to live out their days where they were raised. The few young people that are born here disappear as soon as possible to the Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham or beyond. Will they come back they way their grandparents have? Perhaps, but does it even matter to the overall health of this slice of rural America?

The younger generations flee in search of jobs, and the retirees return as consumers of health care and pensions. Therefore you have a loss of people just as they enter the productive period of their lives. Wouldn’t the area benefit by keeping these people?

The problem comes back to jobs. Beyond Wal-mart and the dollar stores there aren’t many here. As it has become more efficient, even farming does not employ as many people as it once did, and the majority of those jobs are taken by the vast and growing community of immigrants from Mexico.

I’ve been looking around the area thinking hard about ways to bring jobs to the area and employ people. There are whole swathes of towns with abandoned factories and empty strip malls, but what can you make or sell that cannot be made or sold more cheaply by China and Wal-mart? Congress and the Obama Administration has made a lot of noise about rural broadband. Broadband was supposed to transform the American workplace a decade ago – and it did; it wiped out America’s lead in high tech because IT jobs could be done in China and India for a fraction of the cost in America.

Rural America offers natural beauty that urban dwellers can only read about or see on TV. My son had never really seen or understood how the Milky Way got its name before we moved here, and you don’t really know what fresh air feels like until you smell it in the mountains. But how do we bottle and export that?

We have so much land that I no longer wake up to the sound of my neighbor’s kids crying, or grit my teeth over the neighbor’s dog barking throughout the night. How do I sell that?

Perhaps rural America would die if it became prosperous. I hear that the mountains around Asheville are being stripped of timber and flattened to make room for McMansions as that city becomes trendy. Would prosperity doom the solitude and beauty I find in this part of Appalachia?

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7 Comments

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  2. Jack Snyder:

    Scott, what about YOUR job? Do you telecommute these days? If not, how far do you have to drive to go to work? I’m assuming the wife works at a (relatively) local hospital.

    You may have answered these in another post and I just missed it. If so, I apologize.

  3. Right Truth:

    Welcome to the country. We’ve lived in Jackson, Memphis, Nashville, Tennessee and also in Mililani, Hawaii. Now we live on a hill by the Tennessee River, we own 6 large wooded building lots. Only 1/4 of the residences here are permanent, the other 3/4 are vacationers, or weekenders. We wake up to the sounds of the breeze, leaves, birds, and we would not change a thing. It is worth living here, even if we must drive an hour to find ‘city’ with shopping centers, nice restaurants, etc. You cannot sell this, and who would want to. I don’t want this heaven being invaded by the big city.

    Enjoy! As Jack Snyder mentions, you may have to commute, I don’t know. But enjoy every minute of what you have.

    Yes the county is poor, yes there is a high rate of unemployment, some factories closing, but this is going on all over this country now.

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  6. Delta Boy:

    What you have described is rural life, the slow drivers is a symptom of the slower lifestyle of rural life. I’ve got a neighbor who loves living in the country but goes bonkers about having to slow down for farm equipment. To the point of calling the Sheriffs office!

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