As the world’s population is increasingly removed from agriculture, the urban/rural divide continues to be an increasingly important topic of conversation. Unfortunately it can often be discussed in a negative light (from both sides). I have the unique experience of having live (and loved living) in both settings. I decided to feature a two part series on rural and urban living, highlighting some of my experiences and realities of living in both settings. I will kick off the series with the rural portion. The average individual in today’s world is now 2-3 generations removed from the farm and we are not far from that statistic moving to 3-4 generations. I do not know about you – but I can hardly tell you what my great grandparent’s did for careers, let alone my great-great grandparents. That is also the average, even in my own family, I do not know how far back I have to go in the family tree to find a full-time farmer on my mom’s side of the family. It is at least 3 generations but I suspect it is more. So let’s talk about rural life.
Miles not minutes
Rural living means we calculate distance in miles not minutes. These miles are often triple digits. Our urban counterparts likely spend more time sitting in traffic but we spend time flying down the 2 lane highways racking up miles on our vehicles. I consider myself lucky and live 30 miles from the largest city in the state of Montana. That distance puts us within 30 miles of shopping, groceries, 99% of the parts and service businesses we need to operate the farm, medical services, and entertainment.
I recently polled my social media following and got an incredible response. I asked “How far away is the nearest grocery store? How far away is the nearest Starbucks/City Brew?” I created a two prong question because small local grocery stores dot the landscape in rural areas, these grocery stores keep rural residents from traveling several hundred miles just for groceries. One rural town in Montana used to hold the title of “Furthest Town From Starbucks In the U.S.” At the time they were a whopping 192 miles away from a Starbucks. They lost that title a few years later when Starbucks moved to Dickinson N.D. (yes, there closest Starbucks is in another state). Another small town in northern Montana holds the distinction of being the furthest town from a major league baseball team. They are 647 miles away from Safeco Field in Seattle.
My informal poll highlighted the close proximity urban dwelling individuals are to grocery stores and Starbucks, most were less than 5 miles from a grocery store with several living literally across the street. Now, imagine if you are used to living across the street and you suddenly find yourself relocated 60 miles away (one way) and 20 of those miles are on gravel roads. This is a reality for many rural residents. Suddenly if you need an egg or a cup of sugar, you have your neighbors (if there is one close enough) or you find yourself googling alternatives for whatever ingredient you are missing. I have used an untold number of substitutes because I did not have something I thought I did.
More importantly than groceries, many of the rural residents that responded live hundreds of miles from shopping, parts, specialized medical facilities, and entertainment. It literally is a weekend trip to come to the “big city” to do back to school shopping, catch the local fair, or watch the high school state tournaments. Nothing is just “down the street” or a “quick trip” – there is no such thing as a “quick trip” for baby formula or a “quick trip” because my son suddenly grew out of all of his shoes. For me it’s a several hour adventure, for many it’s a day long adventure. The small high schools can also travel crazy distances for post season tournaments. Several years ago Fairview MT played Superior MT in the football playoffs, one town splits the Montana/North Dakota border and the other is almost in Idaho. The distance is over 600 miles.
Luckily with the rise of internet shopping that has mitigated some of the trips to town, or at least mitigated how long we have to go without something before we make the weekend trip to town. Even for myself only 30 minutes from town, we try and limit the number of trips, we always travel with a cooler to make sure groceries are not ruined by the time we get home – by heat in the summer months and frost in the winter, and we often utilize Amazon Prime to reduce the number of trips.
A bar and a post office . . .
I often joke that the only requirements to be a town in Montana is to have a bar and a post office. Really, in some cases, just one or the other is sufficient. Checkerboard MT is a small “town” we frequently visit when we go camping in the Little Belt and Castle mountains. Checkerboard has a small bar that is infamously covered in $1 bills signed by their various customers. The closest post offices are about 15 miles in either direction in Martinsdale and White Sulfur Springs. By contrast Hammond, MT in the far southeastern corner of the state is just a post office. That’s it. If you happen to be driving down US HWY 212 between Ekalaka and Belle Fourche SD you will find the Hammond Post Office on the south side of the road. It serves the local ranchers who dot the remote landscape. A landscape so remote that many of these ranchers have their own single engine planes and they fly back and forth from their ranches to Miles City (100 miles away from Hammond) and/or Billings (200 miles) for supplies.
Addresses are also usually not a necessity. To this day if I do not know someones exact address, I will write their name, the town and the zip code on the envelope, without fail, it arrives at its destination. My sister once addressed a card to her friend with “7 miles past Emily’s house”, as far as I know, it arrived at it’s destination. When I worked at UPS that was when I actually learned the name of roughly 75% of the roads I had been traveling my whole life. On occasion relief drivers would ask me where an address was located, I usually had to tell them that I needed a name, then I would get them where they were going. I might not know the exact number of the house or name of the road, but I know the name of the person and how to get there.
“If it’s raining . . .”
I cannot count the number of times in my life I have been asked by a friend if I can go out to lunch or to a show with “if it’s raining . . .” This aspect of rural living is unique to farmers and ranchers specifically but it’s an important part of the day to day life on a farm. We learn from an early age that our ability to engage in “free time” activities largely depends on the time of year and the weather. I learned from an early age that I am unavailable for 90% of the summer “unless it rains” and I am really unavailable from mid-April through the first two weeks of August. Now that I am a full time farmer I am also largely unavailable from the middle of September to the middle of October.
I went to high school in Billings and was often asked by my friends to join them on trips to the local water slide or afternoons at the pool, to which I always responded “if it’s raining” . . . I usually got a funny (well deserved) look. Who goes to the pool when it is raining? Farmers, that is who. We are also the ones that go to the fair in the middle of harvest, in the rain. As a bonus there are not any lines. We leave early for a late summer vacation because an August thunderstorm dumps 2″ of rain. We take a family trip to the old Big Timber water slide because it is 65 and raining and we cannot harvest.
The only exception to the “if it’s raining” rule is if the drought is severe enough we a) need an escape and b) everything is dried out, and ahead of schedule. In the summer of 1988 we took an extended August vacation to my grandparents home in Salem, OR because harvest was wrapped up before July 31 and there was nothing left to do but watch the smoke blow by from area fires.
Farmers do not have a set schedule, and not only is it not set, it is not very often predictable. We are lucky because we farm in Montana, so during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays we can spend a lot of time together as a family and fully enjoy the holidays. Cotton farmers in the south are likely not as lucky as they are often harvesting cotton in the latter part of the year. The Fourth of July? Eh, while I have been hosting 4th of July parties for the last several years, we are always haying, it is busy and I know we will never commit to out of town travel. Can I easily make a dentist appointment in the middle of the week? Sure. Will I likely cancel at least 2 because the weather was beautiful and we were working in the fields? Yep. Last winter the scheduler asked me when I wanted to reschedule for. I replied “on a day it is snowing,” I do not think she found it as humorous as I did.
Small town, Small School
You might be surprised to know that one of my biggest anxieties about having children is if they will have any classmates. That may seem ridiculous to someone from an urban area where their child is guaranteed to have several hundred of them, but in small town Montana it is a real concern. Classes in Montana’s smallest schools easily range from 1 or 2 to 20-30. There are actually many cases where a graduating class only has one student. In many areas of rural Southwestern Montana and Eastern Montana there are still one room schools nestled among area ranches. These schools provide a K-8 education for these ranching families and limit the distance they have to travel as young children. These kids eventually travel further distances to attend high schools of various sizes. Montana is home to 67 one room schools, the most of any state in the nation. These schools were recently featured in several articles and even a book “Chasing Time: Last of the One Room Schools in Montana”
The one room school is certainly nothing I have experience with, but I do know having a good class that you grow up with can make or break your small town school career. I did not have that luxury and I eventually transferred to a larger school in Billings. I had a wonderful experience there. On the other hand, my sister grew up with her classmates, from preschool to high school graduation they were together. There was about 11 of them and for the most part they are still best friends. My husband still counts all of his high school friends (many of his were a few years older than him) as his best friends. You or your kids are also likely to be taught by a relative, while turnover and teacher recruitment is difficult in small town Montana, many of the teachers that are there for the long haul are spouses of area farmers or born and raised in the area. There are a number of teachers in our small local school today that have been there my whole life (or at least as long as I can remember).
Our small towns are often “co-oped” with several other local towns to ensure there are enough kids for sports teams. This practice was nearly unheard of when I was in high school however our shrinking rural communities have found co-ops to be increasingly necessary in recent years. Several schools co-op with three or more schools just to field one sports team. These same small schools often pool their resources to hold a joint prom, it allows them to save money as well as have a well attended event. It varies from year to year but I believe our school hosts a joint prom with 6 other area schools (and by “area” I mean within a 45-60 mile radius).
“Front Pew of a Wooden White Church”
For many small towns a church is a luxury they do not have. We are lucky enough to have two of them and the local community center serves as the Lutheran Church. The local Catholic church where I grew up only has a priest every other week or even just once a month (the schedule has varied my life). While it has been a long time since I frequented the local Catholic church, I really am “from the front pew of a wooden white church.” Our family traveled 30 miles to a Presbyterian church in Billings on the Sundays there was not a priest for our Catholic Church. The local evangelical church has a scattered history of available pastors, they now have one who travels 45 miles from Columbus for their services.
This stunning rural church is over 100 years old and is only used once a year. It is known as the “Church on the Hill”.
There are a lot of other small differences between rural and urban living however those are some of the main points that stick out to me. As a general rule we still wave to everyone, we decide to stop at the local watering hole on a Saturday night based on who’s pickup is parked outside, we still borrow a cup of sugar from our neighbors, it is not uncommon to see a tractor parked at the gas station or the local bar, the co-op can be a gathering spot, and the community center is truly a “community center” used for everything from fundraisers to city council meetings to church services. There are no Starbucks, shopping malls, fitness centers, yoga studios, concerts, or food delivery services. It is certainly a far different experience from urban living but for those of us that love it, it is a beautiful way to live. For me, it is my home, it is where my farm is, it is where my family is. For as much as urban living does make my heart happy, there is something special about rural life.