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 farmhouse in Ogdensburg, Wisc. Their goal: Flee the rat
race and adopt a more self-reliant lifestyle amid the troubled economy.
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.
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
"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
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.
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.
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, whose grew up in Rochester, Minn., population 100,845.
"And I started to think about things, what's real, what's not real."
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."
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
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
"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@example.com