Midwest Migration: A Generation Moves Off The Farm

This week on Changing Gears we’re talking about people who are leaving the Midwestern industrial corridor. Some of the areas hardest hit by out-migration are small rural communities. They are facing a triple whammy – the decline of manufacturing, farming and shipping sectors.

North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann tracked the journey of one woman who moved from a tiny town to New York City. He brings us this report:


Mark Scarlett and his daughter, Becca Johnson, on their farm in Rossie, NY.

It’s hard to imagine just how small Becca Johnson’s hometown is. Her parents moved to Rossie, in upstate New York, in the 1970s, part of the farming and manufacturing belt that stretched from the Northeast to the Midwest.

Their family homesteaded in an old abandoned barn.

“No running water and no toilet, or anything like that,” says Johnson. She was practically a teenager before her family got indoor plumbing. “It had an interesting influence on my social life,” she says.

While most American kids were waking up to MTV, Becca’s family didn’t have a TV – or even a telephone.

Rossie is tucked away in a fold of rocky hills, surrounded by a chain of beautiful lakes. When her family settled there, the place was already fading. The mines were long gone, factories and farms and cheese plants were closing, and Rossie’s once bustling little downtown has mostly gone dark.

Mark Scarlett is Becca Johnson’s father. He’s in his sixties now and he loves Rossie. “The population of Rossie is about what it was in 1850 or 1860,” he says, laughing.

He talks about the land, the geology, and the local history in the way a city guy might talk about his favorite deli or his favorite baseball team.

Scarlett worked a number of different jobs to make a living, everything from construction to farming. He keeps a team of oxen that he uses for logging and for sugaring maple trees.

You might be thinking that Johnson and her parents are a quaint sort of Little House on the Prairie throwback, but here’s the interesting thing: When the Scarletts moved to Rossie in the 1970s – one third of Americans still lived in rural areas. These days, only one in five families lives in a rural community.

In states like Illinois, the change is even starker, with the urban population swelling to almost 90%. A big part of the reason is the rural to urban migration of young people like Johnson.

“I definitely wanted to go away,” she says. “I mean part of that was I just was like, there’s got to be other places in the world to see.”

Johnson is part of a historic migration, a century-long shift away from small towns. That shift is redefining the nation’s economy and culture.

This transformation is such a powerful part of the American experience that it’s actually inspired a sort of genre of music – pop songs and country and western ballads about leaving small towns and heading to the big city. This is the journey that has reshaped Becca Johnson’s life.

She now lives in the Hudson valley, north of New York City. She commutes o to work in Manhattan, trading her village of 800 people for a city of 9 million.

Johnson has made a great career for herself, working as a researcher and consultant for medical and insurance companies, but these days, people who study small towns are finding that a lot of young people are choosing an urban life not just because of better jobs and careers – but because this is the life experience they want: cosmopolitan, fast-paced.

I remember one of the first days on the job, you were just hearing different languages. Tons of languages going on in the office, which is cool – I love it,” Johnson says.

One big transition that Johnson and a lot of rural people navigate is the move from a mostly white community to an America that is far more multi-racial and multi-cultural. This is especially true in the Midwest and Northeast, where small towns have seen almost none of the racial diversity that is transforming the larger culture.

While at college, Johnson met and married a black man. Her husband, Mark Johnson, was leery at first about traveling north to Becca’s tiny town to meet her parents.

“He insisted that I tell my parents that he was black. And I was like this is going to be really awkward,” she says.

The two families met and meshed really well – though Becca says the lack of diversity in her home town is one of the reasons she thinks it would be hard to move back there with Mark and their two kids.

Mark and Becca Johnson

Becca Johnson is ambivalent about parts of her rural-urban journey. When we go for a walk with her kids, Ezzie and Maya, she admits that she feels that she’s betrayed something – or lost something – by choosing a more urban life. Some of the small-town values she grew up with have slipped away.

“I always think, we could have a garden, or I’d love to have a garden – instead I spend a whole lot of money shopping organically,” she says.

But Becca’s kids, Ezzie and Maya, don’t feel any of that regret. To them, even this bedroom town where they live feels isolated, and Rossie? They can’t even imagine that life.

People who study rural America say there are some hopeful signs for places like Rossie. The small farm movement is drawing some young people back. More rural workers are telecommuting and in some parts of the Midwest, Hispanic immigrants are reviving farms and businesses.

But the reinvention of America as a country where the culture and the economy are mostly rooted in cities – that’s probably irreversible.

These days, when Becca Johnson goes home to visit, she says she worries that important things are being lost as rural America fades – connectedness, self-reliance, a less frantic way of life.

Johnson’s mom, Louise says, “Unless they found some kind of really meaningful work here, I didn’t expect them to stay here.”

Both of her kids and all of their friends from school have moved away. She says she’s proud of them and their careers, but as her generation hits retirement age, she worries about Rossie and the community she and her husband tried to revitalize.

“I don’t know who the younger people who will carry it on. So yeah, it’s definitely not a good thing for the community,” she says.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.


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