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Green Acres Is the Place to Be

The Recession Is Inspiring More Young Families and Singles to Head Back to the Country

By Gwendolyn Bounds | The Wall Street Journal

In June, 40-year-old Shane Dawley and his 36-year-old wife, Rhonda, uprooted themselves and their four boys from their suburban Atlanta rental home and bought an old five-acre farm in Ogdensburg, Wisc. Their goal: Flee the rat race and adopt a more self-reliant lifestyle amid the troubled economy.

Rhonda Dawley

Shane Dawley and his four sons, who moved from the Atlanta area earlier this year, dig for potatoes on their farm in Ogdensburg, Wisc.

While Mr. Dawley, who had worked at a parking garage, hasn't found a full-time job yet, he's been working on nearby farms learning new skills (one person paid him with an old John Deere tractor), and his family is raising chickens while learning to garden and hunt.

"Our generation has never seen anything like this," says Mr. Dawley of the economic downturn. "Fear sometimes is a good thing and will push you to do things you ordinarily wouldn't."

While urban and suburban real estate is still generally under pressure, the rural market is holding up better in many areas, thanks in part to buyers such as the Dawleys. Sometimes dubbed "ruralpolitans," these city and town dwellers are looking at land as their new safe investment, one they hope could prove more stable than their jobs and 401(k)s—and provide a better lifestyle.

Motivations can vary, but typically there are three groups: young people buying land as an asset or investment, with vague hopes to live on it someday; exurban commuters who have jobs in big towns or cities but want to escape the sprawl; and back-to-the-land types who want to dabble in hobby farming. While the 76 million-strong baby boomers eyeing retirement represent the largest ruralpolitan segment, they're being joined by a growing contingent of 20-to-early-40-somethings freshly imprinted by this recession's pain.

Kathryn O'Shea-Evans, a 25-year-old freelance writer, moved from Portland, Ore., to New York on Dec. 31, 2006. When the economy began floundering, she was frugal—living in a $650-a-month boarding-house room, buying clothing in resale shops, and socking away part of each paycheck.

Then, this past August, she flew to Montana to look at a place to invest those savings: a $12,000, 12-acre parcel of land.

"From the minute I landed in New York City, every job I've had I've been worried will end any moment," says Ms. O'Shea-Evans, who is now working on a "permalance" basis as an editorial assistant at Travel + Leisure magazine. She passed on the 12 acres but is continuing her rural-property search. "It's totally worth it to put every extra dime into buying something that I will know is there," she says. She is now looking for something with a house on it.

At United Country Real Estate Inc., one of the country's largest real estate groups dedicated to rural properties, the average residential sale price climbed 7% last year from 2006 levels, before the recession began. This year, says the firm, based in Kansas City, Mo., prices are expected to be up 2% from 2006. That's compared to an expected 22% median price decline nationally in existing single-family homes in 2009 from 2006 levels, as tracked by the National Association of Realtors——a drop exacerbated by the number of distressed homes sold at discount.

Shane Dawley

Shane Dawley's son James, 9, strolls among the crops.

United broker Inez Freeman Pahlmann in West Plains, Mo., cites "a big, big trend toward the younger generation moving back to the rural" areas to be more self-sufficient, even if they earn a lower salary. Likewise, Ms. O'Shea-Evans's United Country agent, Tom VanHoose in Great Falls, Mont., says young clients in their late 20s and 30s have jumped from just a handful a few years ago to 15% of his business.

"Most of these kids say they've just saved and want to put their money someplace that won't go away," Mr. VanHoose says. "They see General Motors go down and AIG go down and they are asking, 'Gee, can my company go down?' There's a lot of angst and anxiety."

At Mossy Oak Properties Inc., a West Point, Miss.-based real estate franchise specializing in rural properties, royalties from sales rose almost 10% in the first three quarters of 2009 from a year earlier. Higher commodity prices in recent years have helped boost rural land values in some farming regions, says Lannie Wallace, Mossy Oak's executive vice president, who believes younger clients view farm and timberland as a long-term investment. "They've seen their parents' stock investments lose 30% to 40% and think: 'If I buy this piece of property and all else fails, I've still got this piece of property.' "

Certainly the country life isn't for everyone, and the grass can stop seeming quite so green when you actually get there. Surprises such as backed-up septic systems, murky well water, voracious weeds and assorted vermin add their own pressures.

Mr. Dawley's family wanted to raise chickens for eggs, but when they bought the generic "assortment" mix at the local cooperative, they ended up with more roosters than hens. He and his nine-year-old, James, decided to try killing one—"My wife didn't want anything to do with that," he says—and cooking it.

RURALjp3Elizabeth O'Shea-Betker

New York freelance writer Kathryn O'Shea-Evans is property-hunting out West.

It turns out that roosters can be tough. "We took one bite and it was like, 'We can't eat this thing,' " says Mr. Dawley. Their garden ambitions fizzled after the soil turned out to be acidic (they didn't test it first) and half the crops died. "That will all be different next year," he says.

Similarly, when Kent Wiles, 48, and his wife, Lynn, 50, and daughter, Zia, 11, first moved from Portland, Ore., to rural Clatskanie, they were eager to buy horses but didn't do enough homework. The first season, the horse destroyed the fields by overgrazing and punching holes in the pasture, until Mr. Wiles learned he needed to fence off sections and rotate the animals. And then there was the manure: "Horses are just massive pooping tubes with four legs," he says.

He heaped the waste into smelly piles that attracted flies, before deciding to build bins. "I was out there in the winter in the dark with the headlights of the truck going, freezing my hands off building these bins," he says. "And I'm realizing, 'Hmmm, this isn't how I pictured it.' "

History shows economic downturns or disasters such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks frequently trigger a short-lived appetite for escape, and that those approaching retirement often crave more-remote properties. If baby boomers follow typical migration patterns, the rural population age 55-85 will increase by 30% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service.

RURALjp1Becky White

Kent, Lynn and daughter Zia Wiles moved to rural Clatskanie, Ore.

But other factors, such as widespread Internet access, are giving this current ruralpolitan trend new longevity, particularly among younger generations. Enhanced renewable-energy options and associated tax credits mean homes can be more affordably powered by the sun or wind in areas where utility companies won't service cheaply.

Younger buyers, such as Jesse Ptacek, 27, have time to reap payback from such investments. For the past few years, Mr. Ptacek has watched the U.S. economy flounder from Kuwait, where he's a firefighter for a U.S. Department of Defense contractor. Knowing he will likely face bleak job prospects upon his return home in January, he recently bought 62 acres of land in Montana.

His new spread, for which he paid $225,000, includes a 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom log home situated well off the grid. Its main heat source is a wood stove, there's bear, moose and pheasant hunting nearby, and Mr. Ptacek is erecting solar panels for electricity. He expects to commute up to 60 miles for work, likely in Great Falls or Helena.

"I've done the stock-market thing, and I lost money like everyone else," says the unmarried Mr. Ptacek, who grew up in Rochester, Minn., population 100,845. "And I started to think about things, what's real, what's not real."

RURALjp_siloLynn Wiles

Zia Wiles

Interest in small-scale hobby farming has also bloomed, particularly among the young. When environmental-news Web site Mother Nature Network ran a piece called "40 Farmers Under 40" this year, it garnered nearly 100,000 hits, one of its most popular features since the site's launch. Visitors to the Web site of Living the Country Life magazine increasingly seek info on wood stoves, solar panels and windmills.

"It's a little like the pioneer spirit," says Betsy Freese, the magazine's editor. "They still want high-speed Internet but want to feel like they are doing something else for their families."

Before his family moved to rural Clatskanie, Ore., Mr. Wiles says he was a classic "urban liberal" dweller, frequenting microbreweries, coffee shops and bookstores. Now his family lives on five acres where, in addition to horses, they also own goats and turkeys, among other animals.

He and his wife run an employment-services company for people with disabilities. One travels 60 miles to Portland several times a week for business; otherwise, they work from home. Mr. Wiles has learned to operate a compact tractor and built a horse shed, and he has acquired several guns. "Look, we're not survivalists and storing powdered milk or anything like that, but if the s—- hits the fan, I can grow all the food I want and take care of my family," he says. "It's liberating."

RURALjp4Jesse Ptacek

Firefighter Jesse Ptacek's off-the-grid spread in Montana.

That pioneer spirit is also felt by manufacturers of compact tractors and small work-utility vehicles, such as the John Deere Gator. "What we are seeing in this [ruralpolitan] customer segment is growth," says Dan Paschke, product marketing manager for utility tractors at Deere & Co.'s agriculture and turf division. The biggest demographic growth segment for James River Equipment, an Asheboro, N.C., John Deere dealer, is someone who commutes to a metro market 30 to 45 minutes away. "They are buying small, easy-to-use equipment and don't have a lot of experience," says Clyde Phillips, a partner.

Manufacturers also are tweaking seats and designs to suit this new generation of first-time users, including females. "We took a lot of women out on tests to make sure the vehicles are still badass for guys but comfortable enough for a woman to drive every day," says Aaron Hanlon, product manager for Cub Cadet Utility Vehicles, a brand of MTD Products Inc. Polaris Industries Inc., known for its powerful off-road utility vehicles, this month is rolling out its first low-maintenance, eco-model: an all battery-powered ride called the Ranger EV.

For some people, the break to rural living is a hedge against an unpredictable future. Brandon Peak is a 36-year-old technician at Intel Corp. who works nights on the factory floor in Phoenix and rarely sees his wife and three children during the week. Mr. Peak's company laid off workers this year, and he's received no raise. So when his parents called recently to say they'd purchased 80 acres in Missouri, and asked if he and his family would join them to start a dairy farm, their son jumped at the chance. They're scheduled to move in March.

"I can't tell you how many people at work say, 'Man, I'd like to do that,' " Mr. Peak says. "Everybody is looking for the next opportunity for hope."

Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at [email protected]


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