Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rural self reliance

Growing up a "country boy" I was introduced early to home gardening, raising livestock, hunting, home repairs, and general self reliance. It was always a joke when family from California came to visit. These "city kids" were out of their element and were often shocked at the difference in lifestyle. I remember having a feeling of superiority over my cousins, with their lack of knowledge and inability to take care of themselves (although the roles were reversed when I traveled to their homes in California).

Thinking back on it I began to wonder if rural communities are generally more self reliant and why? It was easy at first to see why rural areas appear more self reliant. Many areas are forced to be by their location and isolation, others are intimately involved in farming and raising livestock on a grand scale, and in many rural areas hunting is as much a cultural past time as a necessity in filling the family freezer.

So does something make urban areas less self reliant? Following my previous reasoning, urban areas are not isolated or forced to do things themselves, there are often many options if you need help or a particular service. Few urban places have any room to grow a substantial garden and even fewer see it as a necessity when three or four grocers are within a five minute drive with a large selection of produce. Forget about raising livestock in an urban environment, there are usually city and local ordinances that bar it, even if you have the room to do so. Plus, remember you have those three large grocery stores just down the road that will even trim the fat from any cuts of meat you buy. Hunting is even rarer in an urban area. One reason being it is probably illegal and two there's the lack of actual game to hunt. Also, once again, you have that butcher just down the road with all of the nicely prepackaged meat.

It seems to make sense on paper, but what about in real life? In a small village on the Greek island Karpathos, the locals are demonstrating their ability to be self reliant and even enticing many urban dwellers to make the migration to the rural communities with hopes of a better life. The small village, relying on traditions, frugality, and self reliance offer many reassurance and security in a country that is currently in dire economic straights.

With Greece struggling with its nation's finances, tourism at a low, and the decrease in family members' wages working in other countries, this small Greek village has found a way to keep its head above water when others have been washed out to sea. The villagers cultivate produce to sale or barter, they make cheese from scratch, and they see their bread transform from grain in the fields to food on their tables, all through the work of their own hands.

The village relies more on their family and faith than the government, especially as they watch it struggling to stay alive. The village, situated 400 miles from Athens, has actually enticed many of its youth to return from the larger cities and has even convinced some "city slickers" to move to the area.

While this small Greek village is surviving, many rural areas struggle as their only source of employment diminishes or dries up. So what of their self reliance, what can they do to gain it back?

Michael H. Shuman suggests that rural areas create new "import substituting clusters", latch on to them, and ride them into prosperity. So what's an "import substituting cluster"? Shuman describes it as an imported good or service that the community can produce themselves. He refers to any import that the community could produce itself as "energy leakage" and recommends that the community replace those services and goods with local business. In Shuman's article he gives several examples of rural communities doing just that, finding what they can do without from outside their community and replacing it with local goods or services.

It can be a difficult task to accomplish and there will always goods and services that a rural community can't produce, such as computers, vehicles, and medicine. But Shuman argues that it is often simpler than one would think. He suggests that rural communities first look at what goods and services they most commonly use and then start producing them locally.

The town of Hardwick, Vermont did just that. When the granite factories closed down, other businesses did as well. Soon Main Street was filled with vacant shops and Hardwick was forced to do something in order to survive. Hardwick decided their import cluster was food and rallied around it. Local farmers provided the produce for local restaurants and grocers, local dairies made and sold local cheese, and the community worked and supported each other by sharing capital and facilities to keep the local economy growing. The result has been an increase in wages and employment, all without relying on outside capitol or support. A more in depth look at Hardwick's story can be read in Ben Hewitt's book, "The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food".

As the few rural communities mentioned above strive for rural self reliance they also face possible problems. As people return to the rural communities from urban areas or as long time city dwellers relocate, the rural community will be faced with new problems and new perceptions on how to operate. Earlier blog posts such as "Farmville (Part II): Gone with the wind" and "The uninformative rural mystique" illustrate just a few of the problems that may arise.

So who's more self reliant, urban or rural? Maybe it depends on geography, or maybe it can't be answered academically. Either way, I'll put my money on rural and I wouldn't be the first to do so.

1 comment:

JT said...

You raise a valid question, and it's quite possible the difficulty in answering may be due to differences in defining "self-reliance." Urban areas might view self-reliance as primarily economic or development oriented. In part due to division of labor and trade, urban areas might view their financial ability to acquire a variety of goods to be self-reliant. On the other hand, rural areas might view their ability to grow or produce goods from start to finish as an indicator of self-reliance. That said, it might be important to note that urban and rural areas are reliant on one another to a certain extent. Regardless of which is more reliant than the other, there are characteristics in each that are mutually beneficial and necessary.