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Country living, with some help

If rural newcomers thought they were moving to the simple life, some find a rude awakening.

NEVADA, Mo. - Flooded country roads. Roving packs of dogs with no owners in sight. Overgrown weeds as far as the eye can see.

Leaving Southern California for the sprawling Midwest plains had seemed a no-brainer for Dale and Marilyn Johnson, retired occupational therapists who moved to Fort Scott, Kan., last year to be closer to their daughter and five grandchildren. The 22-acre farm they now call home was a return of sorts for Dale Johnson, 68, who lived on a northern Wisconsin farm as a boy.

But their dreams of an idyllic retirement surrounded by five dogs, two birds, one cat, four llamas, a goat and a donkey were quickly tempered by a glaringly obvious reality: The couple barely knew a lick about how to navigate rural life.

"The people who grew up on farms know this stuff intuitively," said Marilyn Johnson, also 68. "We feel like we're starting over."

An infusion of former city and suburban dwellers into rural communities convinced University of Missouri Extension agents that these newcomers needed some common-sense lessons on how to not just survive but also thrive off the beaten path.

Those conversations led to the creation of Rural Living 101, a two-week crash course for ex-urbanites offered so far in Kirksville, St. Joseph and Nevada. The cost is $35.

The recent course in Vernon County, just across the borders with Kansas and Oklahoma in southwest Missouri, attracted a retired Navy officer from Southern California, a former Ohio state conservation agent, the Johnsons, and a longtime local looking to broaden her knowledge.

"This is drastically different than city life," said Wayne Prewitt, a Vernon County agricultural extension. "It's not what a lot of people are used to."

Class members learned about battling noxious plants, pesticide laws, stocking ponds, land-use management and more. The Vernon County clerk tutored participants about the township form of government, where a board meeting can take place at an elected clerk's home as often as at a public building.

Some of the most valuable tips stemmed from a more informal body of knowledge. Problems with loose gravel or other road-maintenance issues? Get a school-bus route on your street; that usually draws more attention from decision-makers.

Beset by ticks and chiggers? Try diesel fuel on the bottom of your boots, or talcum powder on the fur of your dogs and horses.

Excluding population pockets in regions such as the upper Great Lakes, Southeastern states and the Rocky Mountain West, more than half of the rural counties in the United States are actually losing population, notes John Cromartie, a Department of Agriculture geographer.

At the same time, increased mobility means that more newcomers are moving into previously isolated areas such as Vernon County, he added. With those transitions come inevitable challenges.

"Arizona and Florida are sharing the migration with a broader array of communities," he said. "Any migration requires an adjustment."

Sara Jean Peters moved to rural St. Clair County more than seven years ago after retiring from the Ohio conservation department. In that job, she spent plenty of time in rural communities. But that's where the similarities end.

Missouri winters are cold, but with less snow than in Ohio. The clay soil that allowed her to grow certain crops up north was replaced by the sandier soil found on the cusp of the Ozarks.

"As much time as I had spent outdoors, it was totally different here," she said. "I thought I was fairly well-prepared. I've done this all my life. But it's a different way around here."