How to Tell if a Community is Fit for the “Good Life”

Reader Contribution by Toby Grotz
1 / 11
2 / 11
3 / 11
4 / 11
5 / 11
6 / 11
7 / 11
8 / 11
9 / 11
10 / 11
11 / 11

The Pines playing at aDriftless Books, a tobacco warehouse that has been converted into a used book store with more books on the shelves than in many small town.

In my last post, I described what portends to be a very challenging future for all of us when I described why Learning How to Grow Your Own Food Matters More Than Ever. When the countries of the world are reduced to ruins by overpopulation, resource depletion and the lust for wealth resulting in the wanton destruction of the environment, you should seek refuge in one of many safer places that will survive the trying times to come.

Where Should You Go?

Mother Earth News readers, sustainability advocates, and natural farming practitioners have been spearheading a movement back to the land that started at the apex of the industrial revolution after the second World War. The movement took off in full force after the Woodstock Music Festival held down on Yasgurs Farm in 1969, described here by Joni Mitchell.

When you’re fed up with city life, or you’re living in a dry, barren climate, feel a lack of support for your desire for a more sustainable life, and realize it’s time to bail, it’s finally time to move and join the movement back to a calmer, greener, supportive community.

There are a number of regions in the United States that will be a safe haven in the future. Cities and the unplanned urban sprawl documented in the End of Suburbia will be increasingly stressful and are not, nor can they ever be, despite the wishful thinking, sustainable. These regions and towns are described in a new publication named Real Small Towns. The magazine has featured towns from Homer, Alaska, to Belfast, Maine, and in between.

My advice: Find a place where something wild still grows. The Pines describe such a place in their album Above the Prairie. They point out that “we format our dreams to fit our screens and have less and less to say” and they are part of a new generation of thinkers and doers that are revitalizing rural America.

Although the prairie has been replaced by monoculture and factory farms, there are places where the wild things still grow.  Herewith I will describe one.

The Driftless Region

The Driftless is one of the most scenic regions in the country made up of hills and valleys known as coulees, and interspersed with rich farmland. It encompasses part of Wisconsin, northwestern Illinois, Minnesota, and northeastern Iowa

The Driftless Area is so named because it is comparatively free of glacial “drift,” the silt and stone carried elsewhere by ice age glaciers. Though prehistoric ice sheets passed the Driftless Area on all sides, this region mostly escaped the scouring glaciation that flattened the neighboring countryside.  The Driftless; solid, strong, rock steady, survived the glaciers.  The glaciers left the dirt.  The soil was not scrapped away.  Some of soil in the area is called Tama Downs and is one of the most productive soils in the world. The Driftless is home to the largest organic farmer’s co-op in the world, Organic Valley.

Organic Valley Headquaters, OV, thefirst billion dollar organic food company.

In a place where something wild still grows you might find Amber tearing up the track at the Antique Tractor Pull in Viola, Wisconsin using a 1940’s John Deere to pull within inches of First Prize.

Sustaining Our Interconnected Lives and Doing It Right Together

What’s driving a renaissance of human spirit in the Driftless Region? Local legend has it that the hippies came to pick apples and they stayed. They started organic farms, Waldorf and Montessori Schools, community radio stations, yoga studios, and art galleries much to dismay to old timers who eventually accepted them into the fold.

Fahrenheit 451 and Ayn Rand collide in the Driftless amongst subtle green and forested hills punctuated by the most fertile land still left in the nation. The hills and vales, the coulees, protect the land from the 10,000-acre agribusiness farms that stretch like a cancer from Kansas City to Denver and from Houston to the Canadian border. America has been terra-formed to suck the profits into big banks on the left coast and right coast and so the Midwest, and the rest of the nation has been decimated and fallen prey to big box stores, meth, heroin, and alcohol addiction in a karmic feeding frenzy that has bankrupted the soul and heart of a nation taken by force from the original inhabitants

The only way to heal the wounds is to learn to live in harmony with nature and to care for the land, stop the erosion, not just of soil, but of spirit.  In a nation physically attached and addicted to smart phones and obsessed with going to Mars, it may take a catastrophe to awaken the primal urge to survive, which has been switched off due to the neurotoxins in the food supply and the 20 million plus advertising messages pumped into the brains of children by the time they leave high school.

Tell-Tale Signs of a Place for Good Living

Number one, If you can see a grain silo from downtown you’re safe. Locally owned and operated grain mills and silos are a sign of resilience.

You need a local hardware store with an emphasis on farming and tractor supplies.

In the Heart of the Driftless, Nelson’s Agri-Center stocks it all.

It’s nice to have a movie theater with fewer than 90 paces between your seat and where you parked your bicycle, car, or horse and buggy. Add a good public school system and alternative schools such as Montessori, Waldorf, or a publicly funded Charter School. Trained mental health professionals and a local and county law enforcement trained in Crisis Intervention (known as CIT) are an asset to any community.

You can buy a house built before the invention of drywall and constructed with old growth timber, before plantation pine and drywall became the standard of cheap home construction or where you can build innovative energy efficient houses. There is a public water supply without fluoridation or a good well uncontaminated by the nitrates and herbicide/pesticide cocktail laid down on the land by industrial farming or concentrated animal feed operations (CAFO). You can see the stars from your backyard.

When someone gives you a phone number, they don’t include the area code and you don’t need an area code to call your neighbor. Your local community radio station has a collection of 78’s and plays everything from boogie woogie to classical.

WDRT board member Bob Hill plays old 78’s from the Thirty’s during brunch at the Rooted Spoon in Viroqua.

Phones and Internet are run on a state of the art fiber optic network operated by a Co-Op that provides the smart technology to control and monitor the town’s water system.

A Tomato Festival is a summer party. Scene below from Deep Rooted Organic Farm.

Most Midwestern towns store water in towers.  In this town one of the towers stands guard over a park and playground.  If the grid goes down, is there backup power available or renewable energy systems like wind and solar that can keep the water pumps running?  Ask your city government what their emergency plans are for loss of power.

Waste and recycling is managed by a locally owned and operated solar powered, solid waste and recycling collection company

Southwest Sanitation has 42.25 KW of solar power.

And, of course, a food co-op, where farmer John stops in to the Viroqua Food Co-op for a cup of coffee that was brewed with beans from a local farmer focused, solar powered, coffee roasting company, before hitting the hay.

The newest roaster at Kickapoo Coffee Roasters

Locals vs Transplants

When people begin moving into an area that has not had much growth or has had population loss over the last forty years, there may be some push back from the locals.  The locals are the ones who have been in your new town for generations. They deserve your respect and support. There may be some who see you as “outsiders” and suspect you are guilty of gentrification. There may be references to the Carharrt vs. tie dye crowd.

On one hand is the human tendency to be suspicious of outsiders, on the other hand there is the innate tendency to welcome you and get to know you and what you can bring to the table.  Take your time and find out where you fit in and how you can help your new community.

As I asked for ideas and critiques on this blog post, one of the reactions I got was to not tell anyone about where to go, to keep all the special places a secret.  In a previous Mother Earth News blog post in August of 2008 by David Wann, a local resident of the Driftless describes “bad feelings, class conflict, newcomer vs. townie” in the town of Viroqua.

Many people are opposed to change, opposed to growth.  When I moved to Colorado in 1976, there was a popular bumper sticker that read, Don’t Californicate Colorado.  Fast forward forty-one years.  It’s happened.  Colorado is toast; overpopulated, running out of water, dead trees as far as the eye can see.

All over Mother Earth unsustainable growth continues exponentially.  There are three times more people on Earth than when I was born. Preparing for the future includes building interlinked sustainable communities such as described by Robert Wolf in his book Building the Agricultural City. Robert points out that rural America, (before 1960) had virtually no unemployment, everyone had a job. Times changed and in counties with several hundred creameries and cheese plants there are now none.  Towns used to be an average of eight miles apart in the upper Midwest.  Now they are sixteen miles apart and the towns in between have disappeared.  In Wisconsin there are more people moving out of state than coming in according to recent studies.

Robert Wolf advocates a move away from globalization and toward regionalism and can be heard here.  He points out that “The lack of money for local programs [e.g. road repair and maintenance, schools, mental health services, job training, and meals for elderly. – ed.] makes it imperative that local cities and counties provide their own the solutions to their own problems with their own resources and funding.

Now, the future may not be as dark as one might imagine as we look out from our current state of mind into the future.  To paraphrase Lewis Mumford, we can be pessimists about probabilities while being optimists about possibilities.  “If mankind is to escape its programmed self-extinction the God who saves us will not descend from the machine: he will rise up again in the human soul.

Find a place with good Soil and Dirt. That is where we can Sustain Our Interconnected Lives and Do It Right Together. 


Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan

Mapping the Driftless Area

Northern Spirit Radio

Population loss in Wisconsin:

“Lewis Mumford Remembers” by Carey Winfrey in The New York Times (6 July 1977)

Toby Grotz is an electrical engineer who has been involved on both sides of the energy equation: exploring for oil and gas and geothermal resources and in the utility industry working in coal, natural gas, and nuclear power plants. He has been a community garden advocate and organizer ever since. Recent projects include lecturing for the Food Not Lawns classes sponsored by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Communiversity. He is a member of the Sierra Club and past officer of the Kanza Group. Read all of Toby’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.