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Commentary: Defining Rural Character

Howard Sacks' farm in Gambier, Ohio.
Renee Wilde
Howard Sacks' farm in Gambier, Ohio.

Looking out over the rolling farm fields from the front porch of his 94 acre farm in Gambier, located in Knox county, former Kenyon College professor and former Director of the Rural Life Center, Howard Sacks reflects on what the definition of rural character is, and what it means to him.

My family operates a farm in Knox County some fifty miles outside the city limits of Columbus, Ohio. Over the past few decades, urban sprawl has come our way, transforming the rural landscape and small villages into suburban developments and commercial strips. Driving past the miles of decorative fencing surrounding a gated community, my wife Judy sighs, “So much fence, so little livestock.”

The rural character of this county is still visible all around me. I see it driving down township roads surrounded by open green landscapes, rolling fields and pastures, that are punctuated by the occasional farmhouse and clusters of outbuildings. I hear it sitting on the front porch of my farmhouse at night, surrounded by silence and the occasional sounds of nature beneath the heavy darkness of a starry evening sky.

But along the next road west of our place, the fields have been split into five-acre lots, and the lights from modular homes and starter mansions now dim the night skies. The new influx of residents to this rural community like the idea of living in the country, but don’t care much of the scents of farm life, or the sounds of machinery during harvest time, that are a practical part of living in the country.

In the face of this transformative change, the local citizens in our town convened a public dialogue about the future of our community. The primary goal was to preserve the rural character of our county.

But what is rural character?

For most Americans, “rural” means little more than the absence of what we associate with urban life, from cultural amenities to social diversity. The federal government defines rural simply as low population density. But, these definitions fail to capture the distinctive elements that constitutes a rural way of life.

Much of Knox County’s economy still relies on agriculture. The grain silo at the farmers’ co-op remains the tallest building in the county seat. Implement dealers still sell and repair farm equipment like tractors, hay elevators, and brush hogs. The county’s rural heritage embodies a distinctive set of cultural values: neighborliness, hard work, and independence.

Rural character also denotes a certain kind of sociability, an intimacy rooted in connection to place. Old-time farmers speak of knowing the inside of everyone else’s kitchens a generation ago, when neighbors would take dinner together as they moved from farm to farm in collective labor to bring in the harvest. Today, neighbors still gather at the grange hall, but its members, like the overall farming population, is aging and grange membership is in a rapid decline.

In simple terms, rural character means seeing the night sky, working the land, knowing your neighbors, and valuing community. We’ve lost much of this in modern society, at a great cost to our individual and collective well-being.

Today, longtime residents don’t quite trust newcomers who won’t bother to get to know their neighbors and treat the area as a bedroom community or weekend retreat. In response, the new residents often find their older neighbors a bit standoffish.

My daughter plans to take over our farm in a few years, and I worry that she won’t have the same opportunities as the past generations, or be able to experience the rural character of our community they way we have, which has given us so much peace through connection to the land and to our neighbors.

Howard Sacks is former Professor at Kenyon College and former Director of the Rural Life Center, who farms with his wife in Gambier, Ohio.

County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.

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Howard Sacks