Stories that Consider the Future

Globalization, technology, the aging of the work force… so much is changing, affecting what work will look like in the future. Read stories that reflect on the future of work. What choices and opportunities will young people have? What do we value?

A hand-made poster inviting people to join a co-op farm

Back-to-the-Land: A Vision of the Future

It would be different if we had a crystal ball to help us pick jobs, plan careers, or choose what skills to teach our children.  Expert predictions about supply and demand in the future job market influence some of us more than others. Our own visions of the future can also steer our life course.

Starting in the mid-1960s, and continuing into the 1980s, a significant number of people in the United States chose to move to rural areas to re-create their lives and livelihoods. Like members of utopian communities of the 19th century, these 20th century “back-to-the-landers” were reacting to modern life. 

Many of these recent seekers shared frustrations with the pace, consumerism, and some of the dominant social and political values of the mainstream.  Their choice to move, to learn skills of self-reliance, and to build an alternative community, was a way to cope with this frustration. It was also a way to create a different future for themselves and their families.

Finding a Place in the Natural Order of Things

“The uniqueness of the time and place only becomes known after it is past.”

Back-to-the-landers searching for simplicity, self-sufficiency, and freedom often did not want to work for other people. The work of making a life on the land forced them to learn new skills and build alternate economies. Some described it as a search for the natural order of things that referenced the past. Others more deliberately aimed to manifest a better future.

In Wisconsin, many people moved to Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties during the 60s, 70s and 80s. Today, some of children of those families are interested in the movement and how it affected the region. Christine “Kelle” Lemley and Josh Feyen started collecting stories seven years ago, and as part of that project, organized an event called “Reflections on Community Building in Southwest Wisconsin” in Gays Mills, Wis. in June of 2014. The event was sponsored in part by a grant from the WHC.

Kelle, who now lives in Arizona, and Josh, who lives in Madison, both grew up in southwest Wisconsin.  They are interested in the history of back-to-the-landers and community-building in the area.   They began their project by interviewing their parents. The pair continued collecting oral histories, photographs, and artifacts in order to preserve the lived experience of people who were part of a movement. They have collected stories from 93 people so far.

The Future Continutes

“What were they looking for and what did they find?”

“The uniqueness of the time and place only becomes known after it is past,” Lemley said.

The impacts of the back-to-the-land movement were not only personal. At the community event, about 75 people gathered to reflect on the back-to-the-land movement, and how it continues to resonate today. An estimated 90 percent of those people still live in what is known as the Driftless Area of Wisconsin.

Specific institutional, economic and social legacies of the era are easy to identify. There are food co-ops and alternative schools started by back-to-the-lander families that are still around, employing teachers and educating new generations. The commitment to a local economy supports a number of artisan cheesemakers and small-scale farmers whose businesses might not exist if not for the back-to-the-land movement.

Perhaps most notably, out of this culture has grown a billion-dollar international business and major regional employer. Organic Valley, a cooperative of organic farmers founded in La Farge in 1988, is the largest independent cooperative of organic family farmers in the world today.

 “What were they looking for and what did they find?” Feyen wondered about his parents. The answer is personal, but their story, and the effects of their choices, are now part of Wisconsin’s history. 

Hand-drawn poster used with permission by Josh Feyen