A few weeks ago I received an email from a fellow (I'll call him John) who lives in huge metropolitan area. He longs to leave the city behind and settle roots in a rural location. He asked for my advice on how to get started in a small town or rural location. John has been endlessly patient as we’ve struggled through our busy season, so I want to apologize for how long it’s taken me to address his email.
John’s question echoes the questions of so many other people that I asked permission to post his email and my response, and then open up the subject for discussion. There are lots of other people with more experience than I when it comes to what it takes to leave the city, so now’s the time to give us your two cents’ worth.
This is a long post, so grab a cup of tea.
Here is John’s email:
I came across one of your blogs on country living (something like 'Country Living 101'), and thought I'd get your advice on something:
I am a 26 year-old male; single, healthy and fit. I have a college degree in chemistry and something like a minor in philosophy (I'm a Tolstoy scholar). I have a very good job here in [huge city] as a formulator, working in a lab and coming up with formulas for cosmetics and personal care products. I am also a singer/ songwriter and I even have a manager that helps me get my music out there.
However, I absolutely hate living in the city. I admittedly have never really done much farming and gardening, but the excesses, waste, and over-crowding are really getting to me. I feel disconnected from nature, seasons, and even time, as for instance entire blocks of time are lost sitting in traffic. My friends are city people through and through, and are interested involved only in things I find boring: going to clubs, shows, shopping, movies, TV, bars, etc. When I have a chance, I go back to the factory to work with the guys doing heavy lifting and quite laborious work, and I absolutely love it. I feel stronger, invigorated physically, mentally, and spiritually, and it reminds me that I could be really using my body for some real work instead of writing up formulas and cooking them up in a lab. I desperately want to be more self-sufficient and live more simply, but I've taken it about as far as I can go here in the city. I have no family support on this, no one quite understands, and I also have no connections in the country.
With your experience, are there any first steps you could suggest to a guy like me? I mean, knowing what you know about transitioning from city to rural living, what advice do you have for someone who wants to get the heck out but isn't ready to buy land, start my own farm, etc. I am VERY good with my hands, very hard-working, very practical, and very clever, so I know I have the skills, but I don't know how to make the transition!
Let me know if you have any thoughts! Or maybe you could make a blog post directed towards people like me, there is a growing number of people my age who are realizing the destructive essence of city living.
I’ve written before about moving to the country, most notably here, so I’ll ask everyone to go review that post before reading further. That way I can supplement what I wrote before instead of repeating the same points.
To add to my earlier suggestions, I would urge John to think about the following. These points are presented in no particular order.
• John is smart to know his limitations, i.e. that he has no experience with farming or gardening. Too many people think, “Eh, it’s a snap” and try to become farmers. Oooh boy, are they in for a surprise. It doesn’t sound like John is interested in plunging into a homesteading lifestyle, but instead just wants to escape urban life. I’ll base this reply on that assumption.
John is also eager for, and not afraid of, hard physical labor. That’s a good thing because rural life sometimes seems to be nothing but physical labor. In other words, as cruel as it sounds, I would not urge anyone to relocate to a rural location if they’re in poor health (unless their poor health is caused by a sedentary lifestyle) because of the physical work involved.
Let me amend that: nothing prevents anyone from moving rural even if their health is bad, as long as they don’t bite off more than they can chew. A nice garden and flock of chickens are within most peoples’ physical abilities; a herd of cows and a constant milking schedule might tax them beyond endurance. Know your limitations.
• John mentions he doesn’t have any support from friends or family concerning leaving the city. No surprise there – neither did we. In fact, my parents thought we were absolutely flippin’ nuts to leave two well-paying respectable jobs in the city in order to move into a shack (no exaggeration) on four acres in rural Oregon (that was back in 1992 – we’ve since moved to Idaho). But you know what? That’s half the fun. John is young, single, and healthy. The time for him to do something superficially impulsive but deep-seated is NOW. The time not to uproot and move to the country is when you’re saddled with debt, have three young kids (or three sullen teenagers!), and a wife who loves shopping.
Sometimes it’s hard to “disappoint” key people in our lives, but in the end we must all (to paraphrase Thoreau) follow the beat of our own drum or we’ll end up living lives of quiet desperation. If your “drum” is calling for you to chuck it all and move out of the city, then you and you alone are the one who must answer that call, or be miserable.
Besides, surprising things can happen as a result. Who’da thunk we would one day find ourselves in a position to offer advice for people hungry to leave the city? What a strange twist of fate.
• Be aware that jobs are scarce. John is a chemist. There isn’t a lot of call for chemists in rural areas, so John will likely have to create his own job(s).
In fact, job creation is probably the single biggest problem when it comes to moving out of the city, for everyone. Unless someone is lucky enough to bring a job with them (i.e. telecommuting or something similar), you will need to create opportunities to make money, unless you want to be locked into an awful commute. (We have a neighbor who commutes 1.25 hours each way every day to her job in the city. Unless she’s snowed in, which happens every winter.)
So don’t depend on landing a job in your new location. Aside from the fact that locals often prefer to hire locals whom they already know, the indisputable fact remains that rural jobs are often scarce and often low-paying.
That being said, a hard worker with self-discipline can usually find someone to pay him or her for manual labor at relatively low wages for a limited time. (In other words, there is often seasonal work that needs to be done.) But the wages aren’t likely to be enough to support you, which is why I recommend creating your own employment opportunities.
So before moving to the country, John will need to find ways to begin generating his own income. Since John has experience as a chemist, his first project should be to contact schools and businesses in his targeted location to see if anyone has need of a chemist or a chemistry teacher. If not (and “not” is the most likely scenario), he needs to create his own need.
Chemistry is a tough subject for many people to grasp, so an obvious idea is for John to put out word that he will tutor students, either homeschooled kids or public school kids. He might also begin to develop some on-line courses for students to learn this subject.
Additionally, since John has experience in music, try joining (or forming) a local band that can play at events. In our nearest town, the Elks or the Eagles often hire local bands to play at functions. Bars and restaurants sometimes like live music on weekends. The fees the bands receive must obviously be split between all the band members, so no one can make a living with their band… but hey, income is income.
And don’t forget the possibility of teaching music.
Earning a living in the country requires putting many irons in the fire. Look for multiple ways to bring in money – rototilling peoples’ gardens in the spring, plowing private roads in the winter, etc. Playing in bars or clubs on weekends, tutoring chemistry during the week. Every little bit helps. Make yourself marketable in many different areas.
• Your income will drop. Guaranteed. Regardless of what John decides to do to earn money in his new location, the chances are high his income will suffer a precipitous drop. So before leaving the city, John needs to adjust his behavior and spending habits to start living very very frugally. Learn the fun of shopping in thrift stores and yard sales.
This has the added benefit of causing him to live below his means and start saving a nest egg of cash prior to moving. It should go without saying that paying off debt before moving is essential.
• Don’t be afraid or ashamed to start cheap and grungy. Most people cannot afford to buy a dream farm with a beautiful restored farm house and multiple outbuildings. Instead, a lot of people start out with a cruddy mobile home, which at least offers shelter until such time as you can afford to build something better. Deal with it.
• Adjust your expectations. My personal belief is the high failure rate of people who move to the country from the city stems from unrealistically high expectations. (I’m not saying John suffers from this; rather, this is just a general observation.) There are books, magazines, blogs, and websites galore that discuss and illustrate the beauties of rural life. Oh, and the (cough) “simplicity” of rural life – don’t forget that.
But take it from me, rural life can be ugly, and it can be complicated. When newbies are faced with ugliness or complications, they sometimes become disillusioned and disheartened, and long for their “simpler” life in the city.
The fact of the matter is, urban life can be far, far easier than rural life. In the city, you turn a switch and you have heat, you twist a faucet and you have water. The problem is, those utilities depend on other people to provide them. Remove the utilities and services, and life in the city would be miserable.
In the country, those utilities are often up to you to provide. This can be hard, physically and mentally. But at least you are not as dependent on others to provide you with your basic needs.
• A lot of the disillusion that comes with rural life can also be traced to a humongous drop in one’s standard of living. I keep hammering about how scarce and low-paying jobs can be – I cannot emphasize that enough! – so if you want a job that pays comparable to what you were earning before, you’ll have to commute to the city. Or bring your job with you. A lot of people in the country do just that.
That’s why I believe a key component to a successful transition is to create your own employment opportunities through multiple sources. Repeat: MULTIPLE. That way if one source dries up, you are not left destitute.
• Know what you want in terms of rural life. Some people long for a half-acre on the outskirts of town. Others want to be so remote that their only access is by boat or airplane. Most people want something in between. Know what you want.
When we were looking for property in Idaho, we had a bucket list of non-negotiable attributes we wanted. This list included:
- A minimum of fifteen acres, preferably more;
- An older house, preferably a fixer-upper
- Partially wooded, partially in pasture (we wanted a wood lot, and we needed pasture for the cattle)
- No near neighbors (in the sense of right next door)
- No likelihood that the area was going to be “built up” soon (our biggest concern was to wake up one morning surrounded by box houses)
We spent three years looking for a piece of property that fit these requirements. During those years, I must have spoken with fifty or sixty different real estate agents. With such a specific list, it never failed to astound me how many real estate agents couldn’t HEAR what I said.
I clearly remember one conversation in which I recited the above list, then the agent assured me he had the perfect home for us: a mobile home on five acres, surrounded on three sides by suburbia. (“Close to shopping!” he enthused.)
So prior to making a move, make that bucket list of exactly what you want. Then – and this is important – decide which aspects of that list are negotiable, and which are not.
Among your bucket list, you should also list your limitations in terms of what you can stand. For example, I cannot tolerate heat. Give me Phoenix, and I would die. I spent too many years living in the dry heat of California’s Bay Area, followed by the dry heat of rural southwest Oregon. Temperatures in these areas will effortlessly reach 115F during the summer. I hated it. Give me cool temps and a good snow drift any day.
With that in mind, when it came time to leave Oregon, a hotter climate was out of the question. Therefore we spent our time searching in the more northern areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana.
Others would never be able to tolerate the low temperatures and short growing season we have. I know a woman who moved to this area from Tennessee. After experiencing her first Idaho winter, she plunged into a severe depression at the thought of enduring yet another winter. For her mental health, it was essential that she and her family relocate back to a warmer climate.
There is nothing wrong with anyone’s preference, and fortunately there is plenty of climates in this nation to accommodate those preferences.
Another thing to add to your bucket list is what kind of terrain you prefer. Do you like beaches? Forest? Deciduous vs. coniferous trees? Lakes? Prairie? Desert? Again, there’s lots of terrain to choose from. Decide what you prefer vs. what is unacceptable.
• Scout the potential for growth. One of our biggest concerns when we moved to Idaho was finding a place that wasn’t likely to be built up anytime soon. Our nightmare scenario would be wake up one day and find ourselves surrounded by box houses.
When we were looking for Idaho property eight years ago, we eventually narrowed our choices down to two choices. One property was thirty acres of drop-dead gorgeous land, twenty acres in pasture and ten acres in wooded hillside, with a year-round stream running through. Brand new barn, nice house, dirt road…
But in the end we choose our current home. Part of that decision was the price (our place was one-third less expensive than the other place), but the biggest issue we had with the other property was its proximity to a golf course. Sure enough, after moving here we heard scores of radio ads for new condos and tract homes being built around the golf course. In no time flat, those thirty acres of farm located on a quiet dirt road would have seen constant traffic and a plethora of new neighbors.
So be vigilant about the possibility of growth around your prospective piece of land.
• Know your limitations. Endless numbers of people will talk with enthusiasm about building a small log cabin on bare land. This is pretty funny if you don’t have a lick of experience building anything more complicated than a bird house.
A warning about bare land: Improving raw, bare land requires a great deal more time, money, and patience than most people have. The costs of sinking a well, the cost of bringing in electricity (or alternately, the cost of setting up an off-grid system), the costs (which constantly seem to multiply) of building, plumbing, fencing, making barns, etc., will break all but the most generous of bank accounts. It might be better to purchase a piece of land with some sort of habitable dwelling and infrastructure already in place.
• Restrictions. Sadly, local, state, and federal restrictions are limiting more and more what people can do on their own property. A local case that has reached nationwide infamy outlines a couple who purchased a piece of land and then faced a bureaucratic nightmare when they wanted to build a house. (This is, incidentally, another argument for purchasing property with an existing dwelling already on it.)
Bureaucracy is a very real threat, and you cannot depend on real estate agents or even attorneys to research this for you. It’s up to you to find out such things as wetlands protection, endangered species, timber rights, mineral rights, water rights, and even official boundaries.
• Another thing to consider (this doesn’t apply to John, but it’s worth stating anyway): Make sure all family members are on board for the move. Nothing ruins a good move to the country more than a sulky spouse or reluctant teens. Nothing.
• Practice practice practice. During the time you’re looking for your new home, take the opportunity to practice some off the skills you’ll need in the country. Some of those skills might include carpentry, canning, gardening, welding, using a chainsaw, etc.
• Pretend you can’t go back. When we left urban California in 1993 and moved to semi-rural southwest Oregon, we knew we couldn’t go back to the city. That is, we knew we wouldn't go back. As a result of that mindset, we were willing to live in poverty and scratch for a living because we couldn’t/wouldn’t go back to the city. Never underestimate the power of a mindset.
• Sometimes that grit-your-teeth determination is what it takes. But here’s the thing: you’ll never know unless you DO IT. Unless you just close your eyes and JUMP. Prepare yourself as best you can, and then DO IT.
Okay, that’s all the advice I have at the moment. But let’s hear from all you readers who have successfully transitioned from urban to rural life. What advice would you offer someone like John who wants to leave the city?