Farming gets contentious on the rural-urban fringe

01/13/04

URBANA, Ill -- Only 10 years ago, agricultural land dominated the Elburn, Illinois, countryside as it had since the 1830s. But Elburn, only 40 miles west of Chicago's downtown, is much different today as Chicago commuters have continued to move west.

The rapid growth of Elburn and the rest of Kane County has made this area a contested territory where farmers struggle to survive, said Sonya Salamon, a professor in the department of human and community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A cultural anthropologist, Salamon is the author of Newcomers to Small Towns: Suburbanization of the Heartland, which was published last year by the University of Chicago Press.

While the Kane County situation was studied in preparation for the book, the data collected was not directly included in it.

In one year of Salamon's study, two fast-food franchises, a dry cleaner, a new post office, and an elementary school (a result of a recently passed referendum) were constructed, while the FS farm store closed its doors.

One cause of tension between the two groups is that farmers and newcomers view the land in fundamentally different ways, Salamon said. Farmers define land as a means to earn a living. It also symbolizes their family heritage, status in their community, and financial security.

Newcomers tend to see farmland as a public amenity, she said. "Land has value for them as an open landscape."

A farmer in Salamon's study complained about that perception. "People come out here and they say 'Open space, open space. I say, 'Look, your open space is my cornfield. The only thing that keeps it open is that we make money by farming it.' But open space to a city person means, 'There's nothing there.'"

Another farmer said that newcomers wouldn't think twice about calling the police if he trespassed on their property, but they often hunt in his fields without asking or trespass on his farmland with snowmobiles and horses. "They just go through your fields in their 4x4s -- they think they can just drive in and do that."

Salamon said that even newcomers have ambivalent feelings about continued development in Elburn. "If this community continues growing, we're going to need more stores, but for the small-town atmosphere, you need the farmland," said one recent arrival.

"At least we can still see cornfields," said another who lamented further construction now that his family had settled in. "This might sound sappy, but I like watching the farmers plant in the spring and seeing the corn grow."

Nevertheless, on his way to work, this newcomer vies for road space with a young farmer who can see a subdivision from this kitchen window. The farmer describes frequent hostile interactions with newcomers during busy seasons when he moves machinery.

"People get so mad because I'm only going 20 mph. If you took their middle finger away, they'd be lost," he said.

Newcomers favor the look of a farm community, but they have trouble with many of its trappings, Salamon said. "One farmer told me, 'When guys are out plowing at night, people complain about the noise. You spray pesticides, and people say you're killing their kids.'"

And Kane County's recent anti-mega hog farm measure signals to some farmers that the community is increasingly intolerant of livestock and the odors farm animals generate.

But the saddest development to some farmers is an erosion of community trust. "Seems like half the people who come out here have to get a horse right away. One of the things we learned real quickly is to get the money for the hay before you unload it. You just don't know everyone like you used to, and some of us have had trouble."

Farmers compare their newcomer neighbors to their old neighbors, and the newcomers come up short. "The elimination of farmer neighbors is the downfall of farming. It's not nearly as close-knit as it used to be," said a longtime Elburn resident.

What does it take for a farmer to pull up stakes and move farther west? Salamon said when a farm is enclosed on three sides by new development, the balance often tips toward declining attachment to land or community.

An Elburn Welcome Wagon representative tells this story: "We knew some people who had a dairy farm. Developer after developer came to them. They were offered over $4 million. Finally, they took it and moved north to Rockford. Now they have 300 cows, almost double what they had, and three times as much land. They had new development on three sides of them. They were tired of the new people always complaining about the smell and stuff. That was a big part of why they decided to sell."

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