July 17, 2005
Section: Sunday Opinion, Des Moines Register (reprinted here with permission)
Back home to rural Iowa
By JENNIFER DUKES LEE
The chance of a rural rebirth was all but dead, I once wrote. “Thousands of Iowans, like me . . . will never again live in their rural hometown,” this native of Marathon asserted in a 2000 opinion piece for The Des Moines Register.
I was only half right. And that’s being generous.
Here I am -living in the sort of place I least thought I’d be.
My view is a horizon interrupted only by silos, trees and the white steeple of a country church.
My back yard is a freshly planted bean field.
My home is rural Iowa.
I say this out of both pride and humility.
Pride -because there’s an innate sense of delight in my renewed connection to the land, especially with the promise of each spring.
Humility -because I was so very wrong about what promise rural Iowa holds for a thirtysomething like me.
Here, in a vast openness that too many view as being void of opportunity, I am fulfilled.
In one sense, I was right. I didn’t move back to my hometown of Marathon. But that’s where the reliability of my foretelling ends.
Three years ago, our family moved to rural Inwood, in far northwest Iowa, to return to the family farm of my husband, Scott Lee. Here, we are raising three kinds of crops: corn, soybeans and kids.
Sociologists call us “U-turn farmers,” people tugged from the big city to return to their roots.
Some of my metropolitan friends call us crazy.
Why, they ask, would we abandon all the opportunity of city life for the relative remoteness of western Iowa?
My answer: We didn’t.
For two years, I have worked for The Des Moines Register as a reporter, doing the same kind of work I did while in the newsroom. I have a satellite dish attached to my roof, pointing toward the Inwood grain elevator, which gives me instant access to my editors.
With a personal computer, fax and telephone, I can telecommute with ease.
Meanwhile, my husband helps his parents tend the fields and run the family’s value-added agriculture business: producing soy candles and a snack called Super Soynuts.
This new life is proof that I was wrong about rural Iowa.
The biggest surprise of all for me? I’m leaving my big-city job now, too, despite the opportunity that technology afforded me, because there’s so much to do out here in rural Iowa as we build a family and a farm.
This article is my last contribution to the Register as a staff writer.
Former Register columnist Chuck Offenburger, now living and writing from rural Greene County, tried to correct me back in 2000. I wrote him off as an overly optimistic rural activist who didn’t really understand how rural Iowa held nothing for a college-educated, professional woman like me.
I knew what the demographers were saying. Farm counties in the Midwest lost nearly 9 percent of their population from 1990 to 2000, sucking life from towns like the one where I grew up. The Iowa countryside is dotted by fewer and larger farms.
Rural school enrollments took a dive after the farm crisis, then remained stagnant or dropped even further, forcing more consolidations.
Most of my graduating class of 37 at Laurens-Marathon left for jobs out of town. Many live out of the state.
The snapshot of rural Iowa, to me, looked bleak.
But glimmers of hope across the Great Plains have forced me to look again. Technology can help reconnect even the most distant rural areas with the rest of the state and the world.
“People of today have been handed a tool that enables something completely different in the countryside, and that’s high-speed Internet,” Offenburger tells me now, resisting any urge to utter an “I-told-you-so.”
“You can do global business of all kinds from farmsteads or from small towns,” he said. “You can do that as well from a farm outside of Inwood as you can from West Des Moines.”
In fact, availability of high-speed Internet access in rural areas has caught up with urban areas.
In December, the Iowa Utilities Board reported that about 72 percent of rural and urban communities had access. In 2002, the board reported that only 47 percent of rural communities had access, compared to 61 percent in non-rural areas.
But a high-speed connection to the world cannot single-handedly save rural Iowa.
Starting today, the Register is publishing a series titled “On New Ground,” which explores the changes that will come about as a result of the Midwest’s aging farmer population. My job was to examine the impact on rural communities.
While many Midwestern towns are, indeed, experiencing rebirth, the fight to survive is far from over. Jon Bailey, a researcher from the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, said towns built on farming will have to “rethink their purpose” as agriculture continues to change.
But as Iowa townspeople get busy thinking up new purposes, let’s not lose sight of the old ones. People living in places like Marathon or Inwood share a common identity, wrapped around their churches, schools and generations of families who have made their homes there.
For all of my false predictions in 2000, there were many truths in my essay.
Marathon, I wrote, was “like an extended family, where people not only know one another by their cars, but also by their tractors.
“Even today, no one is a stranger in the bank, grain elevator or post office.”
The people still living there, I wrote, “remember holding us as babies, buying our Girl Scout cookies and cheering for us at basketball games. They remember attending our baptisms and our weddings.”
“They remain in Marathon as symbols of permanence and strength. They taught us lessons about life, which stay with us long after we leave.”
I asked readers whether those of us who fled rural Iowa were robbing our descendants of a way of life found only in small-town America. Would our own children ever experience the joy of knowing everyone in their hometown, not just their next-door neighbors?
As for me and my family, we can now answer “yes.”
I know my rural postman, Stan Haugland, not because he brings my mail every day, but because I see him at church.
I know my banker, Dan Moen, not by the nameplate on his desk, but by his face in the gymnasium bleachers.
I know my neighbors, not because they wave to me on the highway, but because they brought casseroles and cupcakes to our front door when Grandpa Milo Lee -the 95-year-old patriarch of this farm -died this spring.
Indeed, the life I declared all but dead is now the one I’m living.
Copyright (c) The Des Moines Register. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.