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Cover Story: The Real Green Acres

Moving from the city to the country and learning to love it

By Margo Pierce · June 27th, 2007 · Cover Story
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  Sometimes feeding the animals means giving the younger ones a bottle. At age 7, Jake Swolsky is an experienced bottle feeder.
Joe Lamb

Sometimes feeding the animals means giving the younger ones a bottle. At age 7, Jake Swolsky is an experienced bottle feeder.



A sleepover at a friend's house means taking a toothbrush, pajamas, a change of clothes and your horse -- that is, if you live on a farm and the friend who lives 20 miles away has an extra stall in the barn.

"About a year ago I was taking my daughter Morgan over to a friend's house to spend the night, and her friend asked her to bring her horse so they could go riding," says David Swolsky, one of the newer residents of Augusta, Ky. "She's got her clothes and her horse. This is kinda cool, that the kids get to take their horse to their friend's house."

When Grandma and Grandpa live "across the street," with 1.5 miles from door to door, and "drive your tractor to work" means the high school parking lot doesn't have a car in sight, you know you're not in the city any more. For kids who are raised in a metropolitan area and visit the country only on weekends, it's a dramatic change.

Even though the Swolsky kids spent many weekends on Grandma's farm (Grandpa lives there too, but this is her dream), they were not happy about moving from their home in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming in December 2004.

"It was the middle of winter, and the first week we moved here there was an ice storm, so we had no electricity for 10 days, no water," says Karen Swolsky. "We're still in boxes. I don't know where the flashlights are."

Jessica, the 16-year-old eldest, chimes in.

"We went to our grandma's and the generator went out there, so we were all miserable," she says.

Even after the initial storm, settling into a daily routine was far from easy. The addition of a bathroom and other improvements to the three-bedroom farmhouse, which came with 109 acres and its own cemetery, still meant the family of seven had to adjust to daily life and doing chores such as collecting eggs and cleaning stalls in the barn.

"I literally had to shut my bathroom and cry for three weeks, and then I had to get out of the bathroom and let them into the bathroom to cry," Karen says. "We ended up leasing our home in Wyoming ... so everyone's like, 'Well, then you'll move back.' In the first few months that we were here, when all of us cried every single day, that was something that got me through: 'We can still move back.' "

With two girls in one bedroom and three boys in another, it meant close quarters and almost no privacy for weeks.

"We were home-schooled so we never got out of the house," Jessica says. "We didn't know anybody. This house is so small; you're with everybody 24/7. I think it brought out the worst in everybody."

Her mom smiles and says the family went through a "pruning process."

Unfortunately, the city pets -- used to life in a contained backyard -- didn't make the transition well. They didn't have the survival skills to avoid serious injury.

"We ran over two dogs in two weeks, and the vet contemplated whether we were fit for dogs, let alone kids," Karen recalls.

Both dogs survived.

From a rather inauspicious beginning came many positive and important changes.

"The approach to raising our children has altered in the sense that we are not focused on them as much, we are focused as a team," Karen says. "They must participate to keep the farm running. This is not something David and I can do alone. If they don't clean their room, that's one thing. But if they do not feed the animals, it can be deadly and expensive. They are needed more, and I think they realize that.

"There wasn't that teamwork, for us, in the city. They know they were loved, but the dependency was more on us to entertain them than on them helping us. It has really been a good thing for our kids. Having said that, there are city families that do this as well, but we just didn't until we moved out here."

Trading chickens
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Information Bulletin of August 2006 (www.ers.usda.gov/emphases/rural) states that the "non-metro" population in the United States grew by 2.2 percent between 2000 and 2005. "Rural and small town America" is the definition of "non-metro," and these areas added 1.1 million residents. While it's still approximately one-third lower than the growth rate in the previous five years, 17 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas.

Immigration of ethnic groups accounts for some of the increase, and so does the natural growth of families already living in the communities. People moving from the city to the country also impact that number.

Being open to making the change from a familiar way of life to something entirely different isn't for everyone, according to the Swolsky family. The farm was initially going to be an investment, but they soon found it was an all-or-nothing proposition, and they decided to choose all. Many people discouraged them from making the move.

"We thought the kids would get through some schooling, and then we would move," Karen says. "We were just going to hang onto it for a summer project, but it's something that you can't do 'kind of.' You can have a summer home, but you can't do anything with this unless you're going to stay here and maintain it."

The timing of the move was based on when the improvements to the house were finished, and that didn't happen until December. So that meant Karen rented the kid's schoolbooks from the Wyoming School District, and David bought a bunch of puppies to help smooth the transition.

"(The children) fought me and cried," David recalls. "When I picked them up from their last day of school, I had a puppy for each one of them. That helped. You do what you have to do."

The move from city to country meant dramatic and sometimes humorous changes. Going down the street to LaRosa's for dinner a few times a week is replaced by eating the pork at home that you "put up" a few weeks before. Going to the movies is replaced by the local high school basketball game, even if you don't have a kid on the team. Swim club is replaced with horse club, and trading baseball cards is replaced by trading chickens.

"There's a guy who's 15 and he lives down the hill," 12-year-old Ryan explains. "So I traded him two hens for a rooster because we needed a rooster."

"I've never seen this before in my life, where somebody comes over to trade chickens," Karen says. "This guy drove up on his quad with a cage on the back. The boys do this; they'll trade chickens, different breeds."

And where does a city dweller learn that an "old batch" of chickens will kill a "new batch" if they're mixed together, in addition to the best time to plant crops? The farm channel, of course. In Augusta, it's RFD-TV (www.rfdtv.com), "Rural America's Most Important Network." As Cattleman to Cattleman comes on, Jessica says there are programs that teach how to train horses, and she points to a series of videos on the subject from RFD.

"It's so educational," Karen says. "The other day we were watching the channel, and they were talking about the effects of global warming. Crops are rotating north, so there may be a day when we're growing peaches like Georgia, and in Michigan they're growing tomatoes like we did. We've had to learn what most people know."

Another great source of information is the feed store.

"What did he say about doing corn?" Ryan asks. "You're supposed to get up some time at night?"

"You're supposed to get up in the middle of the night and (plant) corn," Jessica says.

"No, no, no, it's tomatoes," 12-year-old Morgan chimes in. "Plant tomatoes under the full moon."

"No, it's potatoes," Ryan counters.

"Yeah, that's right," Karen confirms. "Plant potatoes under a full moon and they'll do better."

While Karen has added potatoes to her garden, she didn't plant them in the middle of the night.

"There are some things I do really well and other things I still don't understand what I'm doing wrong," she says.

That same network that provides support can also result in some serious embarrassment.

"I filled up a diesel truck with regular gas and the whooole town knew," Karen confesses.

"Or when you fell off the horse," Jessica adds. "They all have police scanners, so everybody knew the day she fell off the horse. Everybody asked her about it."

That fall resulted in an ambulance ride and surgery in January. The grocery store, K's, sent her an arrangement of "get well soon" flowers while she was laid up.

'Look at the moon'
The family believes they keep the whole town entertained with their city-people-gone-country antics. Much of their learning comes through trial and error, and the plan for their farm is that eventually they'll be profitable. Until that time, they work four jobs -- David owns and runs the family's Gold Star Chili in Maysville, sells commercial real estate and works the farm while Karen sells software and also works the farm. They also continue to explore opportunities to diversify their farming activities.

"We bought a herd of Black Angus and we're trying to develop the best quality beef we can -- not organic but naturally," David says. "They're pasture-fed with pasture grazing and no hormones. We also raise Tennessee Walking Horses. The Black Angus and the Tennessee Walkers are the meat and gravy of the farm."

"Long-term we've talked about some kind of tourism," Karen says. "There are a lot of people who would love to come and ride on the trails, hunt. You can't pay for some of the things you can do out here."

The move from the city opened up a world of activities that used to be expensive in an urban area. Trails cut through the woods are great for hiking or horseback riding. The riding ring in the "backyard" is as much for training horses as for learning how to ride. Paintball, sled riding while being pulled by four-wheel-vehicle called a "quad" and long summer days spent fishing, building forts and exploring the woods are just some of the things the whole family enjoys.

"It's not a lot different in the city in terms of relationships, just bigger yards," David explains. "It's the same community. People come out there and they think they're in the sticks -- you don't see all the relationships."

Those relationships are a source of support and humility, according to Karen. As a member of the Tripleridge Homemakers Club, she enjoys hearing the older women talk about how, as girls, they would dry apples on the roof of a henhouse or make fried apple cobbler. When they talk about the kind of pumpkin used to make pumpkin pie, she says Libby's is the closest she's ever come to identifying her pumpkin of choice.

"I would just panic before these homemaker things, and I'd have to bring something," she says. "In the city, if you baked someone a loaf of banana bread, it was such a big deal. Here they make banana bread every day. You get some of these women together at church functions -- that's some of the best food I've ever had anywhere."

What Karen calls "country culture" is one of the tradeoffs for not having easy access to "international culture," a Starbucks around the corner, a good bakery, a hospital closer than 25 minutes away and the superior educational system of a metropolitan school district.

"What we're lacking maybe in the Wyoming education we're gaining in a different education," Karen says. "I love these farmers. They don't use technology. They just know by the moon and the stars and the sun and the feeling in their bones when to plant, when not to, what you do with different herbs and what they would do to heal themselves. There's such a wonderful knowledge

"When we were doing our pigs, Susan down at the feed store was like, 'You know, we used to get 20 people together and we'd all do pigs together. The ladies would do their lard and they would do their sausage and their casing.' That's what I hope, as a country, we capture. I get concerned that we're going to lose all of our natural resources, all of our abilities."

Karen is doing her part and taking advantage of the opportunity to learn all she can.

"Just like they're learning, David and I (are) learning. We've learned a lot of things the hard way. We fail miserably daily, but you learn from your mistakes.

"We cut hay -- and you know what? If you cut it and it rains on it, it's ruined. These farmers will look at the moon to know when to cut hay. I'm just so awed by their knowledge.

"You think you're so worldly and you're so educated coming to the farm. It's a hard life on a farm, and it's amazing what you have to know to run a farm. It's not something you'll find in classes. So many wonderful people have taught us things. I just love learning and thinking about the early pioneers of our country. I feel so connected to something greater than myself."

'Whose people are you?'
Each generation learns from the one before, and swapping stories between families is commonplace. The family is a tight unit because everyone has a role to play that is important for the farm to be a success.

Living and working together was a big change from city life, where soccer practice, baseball games and play dates pull family members in different directions.

One of the biggest adjustments Karen says she had to make was getting used to "play dates" that normally lasted two hours, so her kids wouldn't wear out their welcome, to lasting as long as two days. With farms spread 15 to 30 miles apart, riding a bike over to a friend's house isn't an option. Parents have farming to do -- whether planting, mending fences, tending animals or fixing a broken cistern pump -- so they need to maximize the use of their time. Wasting time isn't an option.

"Everything's family oriented," Jessica says. "When people come over, the whole family comes over. The kids go play and the parents talk or whatever."

"The reason that the whole family comes over -- it's a half an hour drive sometimes," Karen says. "You come over, you share a meal, you all visit and then they all leave because to drive over (and back), that's two hours in your day. It's a different visit. It's always open for the whole family. You're always together."

That togetherness can make interacting with strangers difficult. When you're related by marriage or birth to everyone in the county, the opportunities to learn how to relate to and welcome unfamiliar people don't happen often. David is constantly teaching the teenagers who work at the store how to greet and welcome customers.

"We really are a beginning number of new families moving out here," Karen says. "It's not that they're rude; they just don't know who you are, why you're here. 'Whose people are you?'

"But then there's something wonderful about growing up with your entire family. People will take people in. You can run away from home. Where are you gonna go? To your Uncle Bob's sister's brother's house -- everybody knows everybody, and everybody takes care of everybody. Everybody takes care of everybody.

"Our neighbor here, sometimes if our grass gets a little too long, he'll just come over and cut it. Somebody will shovel our driveway. They don't ask you, they don't tell you; they just do things."

The infusion of city experience means the new people have something to offer the existing community. That ability to bridge the city-country gap comes down to finding commonalities.

"People are the same -- they're the same in the city as they are in the county," Karen says. "I really wish there would be more of a connection because I think people in the city could really benefit from this knowledge out here in the country, and vice versa. I think the country could benefit from the city: Education is one, higher expectations."

Education was a major concern for Karen and David when making the move. Their four youngest attend St. Augustine School, and Jessica will attend a college-prep high school in Maysville for her junior and senior years. She's being home schooled this year to help her get ready to take the SAT and ACT college entrance tests. Because she has already tested out of the high school English classes, Jessica is also taking a writing class at the local community college.

"School is really a fun time for them," Karen says of the kids who have grown up on farms. "When the tobacco comes in, they don't go to school. They have to help on the farm. In a farming community, high school is it. It's their last years of innocence, and then they're going to some hard, hard work. It's not that I want to say that they're not educated. It's not that they don't have goals. They're just different."

"They just have different goals," Jessica adds. "At the college, I see all the seniors that were at my high school last year, and they're going to be an electrician or something."

"Her writing class at the college is hard," Karen says. "She's paraphrasing Harvard essays about education, Martin Luther King. It's wonderful what they're bringing into education. It's only going to get better, but there's a transition that's taking place, and we're right in the middle of it."

Observing that "Lexington's coming up" and "Cincinnati's coming out," Karen believes farming as a way of life is in danger of disappearing. That makes her sad, but the up-side is that her family will probably be included in those who hang on to the farming life. All of the Swolsky children, including Ben, the youngest at age 5, say they don't want to live in a city when they grow up. Ben's first choice really is Sea World, but the farm is OK, too.

The location for Jake, 7, is still undecided.

"I want to live in Oklahoma on a ranch," he says. "Actually, I want to live in Washington. No, I want to live in North Dakota."

David and Karen say they want to build something to give their children, and it seems as though they already have. While they readily acknowledge that their decision wouldn't work for a lot of people, because it means a significant shift in priorities, serious sacrifices and a lot of backbreaking work, they can't imagine making any other choice.

"I wouldn't want it any other way right now," David says. "Although we do miss all of our friends, it's been a positive experience.

"We feel blessed when we come home or we're out there on a pretty day. As hard as the work is, I wouldn't trade it for the world -- to be together as a family, to see the scenery that we see. Wow, this is really ours? It's a neat feeling." ©

The Things You Learn on a Farm
When the Swolsky family finished their first year of life on Sunrise Farm in Augusta, Ky., they shared this list with their friends and family in a 2006 Christmas letter:

Top 10 laughable (now, not then) moments of the year:
First week we were here the electricity went out for a week.

Filled up Mom's diesel truck with regular gas.

David and I backed up over two different dogs in the same week; this caused many raised eyebrows at the vet and one very large bill. Both are alive and well.

Morgan broke her arm falling off Ryan's dirt bike.

Ben stood too close to Ryan's baseball bat, needing several stitches. This also caused raised eyebrows at the ER; these events happened in the same week.

I fell from a very spooked horse, causing multiple bruises and scrapes.

We have a horse that thinks she's a dog, Ms. Lizzy, and often comes on the front porch for food.

We had a goat, Jimmy, which kept coming in the house to the kitchen looking for food. Key word is "had."

Jessica, Ryan and Morgan often had to remove the chickens from the mouth of the dogs.

Went through multiple water pumps supporting our cisterns. We do not have city water.

 
 
 
 

 

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