Sunday, April 01, 2007

The reality of rural life

A publication is being developed to educate new residents about the sights, sounds and smells associated with living near a working farm.
The Roanoke Times
By Christina Rogers

As one of the last agricultural holdouts in the Roanoke Valley, Michael Beahm is well-acquainted with the squeeze development is putting on his Roanoke County beef cattle operation.

Already two subdivisions have sprung up on the fringes of his land, which extends across the Botetourt County line. Rooftops skirt the perimeter of his pastures. And he's heard of plans to build a dozen or so patio homes right up against his fence-line, about 150 feet away from his wood-framed barn.

"Sooner or later there is going to be a conflict with the smell," Beahm said as he stood in a mud-caked pasture watching his cattle lumber by.

For home buyers seeking to escape the commotion of city life, the countryside may offer up some surprises of its own -- try tractors on rural roads, farm machinery churning in the wee hours of the morning and the stench of manure wafting from newly fertilized fields.

In fact, for those expecting wide open spaces and a quieter lifestyle, the reality of rural life can be somewhat jarring -- so much so that two Virginia farm organizations are now stepping in to help rid newcomers of such preconceived notions.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Farm Bureau will release a newcomer's publication this fall aimed at educating new residents about the sights, sounds and smells associated with living near a working farm.

It will cover everything from pesticide spraying to manure application, privacy of open space and slow-moving farm equipment on roads, said Martha Walker, an extension specialist based in Danville, who is spearheading the project. It will also touch on farming as a business and explain the laws and regulations that support it. "The understanding of what it takes to run a profitable farm is somewhat lacking among newcomers," Walker said.

The publication, she said, is being funded by a $35,000 grant that will pay for about 50,000 copies to be distributed through real estate agents, local governments and county farm groups.

Research for the project was partially driven by calls coming in to state extension agents about farming activities, Walker said. "There were questions about why there is so much odor in this community, how do we control the odor and why is there so much noise," she said. "We wanted to develop something in response to these questions."

Consider Linda Hogan, a New Jersey native who moved from the suburbs of New York City to rural Rockbridge County seven years ago. She was startled to hear the crackle of rifle fire in her new country setting.

"People hunt here so you have rifles going off," she said. "We weren't used to that before," she said, adding that it would have been helpful to know ahead of time what happens during different times of the year, such as when the hunting season starts.

Two counties in Virginia -- Accomack and Isle of Wight in the eastern part of the state -- already have pamphlet versions of the publication. So do numerous other localities nationwide. One rural county in Michigan even included a scratch-and-sniff panel in its 2003 brochure that gave readers a whiff of a manure-like odor.

Walker said she's modeling the Virginia publication on a booklet from San Miguel County, Colo., which at 31 text-heavy pages, profiles the county's agricultural industries, gives tips on minimizing conflict among neighbors and offers contact numbers for various government and agricultural associations.

Carroll County-based author Frank Levering is writing the text for the publication. He has co-authored several books on moving from urban to rural America.

In researching material for the publication, Walker toured 10 high-growth counties across Virginia and met with agricultural producers, real estate agents, civic leaders, and newcomers to rural areas.

What she and Levering found is that the concerns straddled both sides of the fence. For instance, she said, newcomers tend to be heavily engaged in community boards and civic organizations while rural residents are more family oriented.

When conflicts do arise, newcomers are more likely to approach local officials and voice their concerns, said Levering, who has served on the Carroll County Planning Commission. That's their way of getting involved with the community, he said, but longtime residents may interpret the concerns as demands.

"Each side wants to be engaged with each other, but they choose different paths to do so, and they don't take the time to talk to each other first," Walker said.

Meghan Dorsett, a comprehensive planner in Montgomery County, has also seen development elevate tensions in rural communities. "If you live in urban-suburban areas, open spaces have a much different value," Dorsett said. "In some ways it's more valuable because they're rare." When a farm sells off a piece of land, she said, "the suburbanite views that as a loss," whereas the farmer sees it as an economical necessity.

Dorsett said she thinks the publication is a good idea, but added that its success depends on how -- and if -- it is used by real estate agents.

And so far, some local real estate agents have questioned whether it's needed.

Micki Patrick, a Daleville-based agent who primarily works with urban clients looking to move to the countryside, said she's been in the business for about 30 years and has rarely encountered a new resident with complaints about moving next to a farm.

"If they are so steeped in urbanism that these things would bother them, they usually continue to live in urban areas," she said, adding that she doesn't think a guide is needed.

If anything, she said, she's heard farmers complain about some homeowners leaving their porch and garage lights on dusk to dawn.

"The whole idea of being in the country is to look up at the stars," Patrick said.

David Pollock, a Roanoke Valley real estate agent who specializes in rural property, said he thinks the publication might help a client make some decisions about an area.

But these "green acre situations" as he calls them referring to the 1960s television series in which a couple moves city to the countryside, happen only on occasion and are easily resolved once the home buyer spends some time in the area.

That was the case with retirees Linda and Doug Hogan upon moving to Rockbridge County.

"We did our homework and spent time seriously looking and finding out about the area," Linda Hogan said.

And there were some pleasant surprises -- such as finding that people felt safe enough to leave their cars unlocked. "We're from a place where people lock their cars in their garages," she said.

A newcomers' guide, Doug Hogan said may prevent some knee-jerk reactions to unfamiliar experiences. "A lot of people don't know what they are getting into exactly. They want to kill the frogs in the pond because they make too much noise." But getting to know your neighbors will help, too, he added.

It took living among farmers to teach the couple to respect the rigors of the profession. "People that are in farming work harder than anyone else I've ever seen," Linda Hogan said. "It's a 24-hour job."

At the same time, suburbanization is nothing new for farmers who are increasingly finding themselves in the minority. Starting in the 1970s, many states, including Virginia, passed legislation aimed at protecting farmers rights against new development. The Right to Farm Act now helps shield farmers from nuisance complaints.

Meanwhile, ask Beahm about a newcomer's publication and his face scrunches up in thought.

So far, nobody's gotten "ugly or nasty about" his farming activities. In fact, they've alerted him to lame or sick calves and helped watch over the livestock. But as more newcomers move in, he acknowledges, there is a potential for misunderstandings to arise, and communication will be key to smoothing out any differences.

"I think people that don't understand things just need it to be explained to them. Then they understand," he said, pausing for a minute.

"Good fences make good neighbors," he said. "That's what I believe."

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