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Country life isn't all peace and quiet. Some rural communities teach newcomers 'what to expect.'

File photo of soybeans beginning to sprout on a farm in Nashville, North Carolina, on Thursday, May 16, 2019.
Madeline Gray
Soybeans beginning to sprout on a farm in Nashville, N.C., in Nash County, on Thursday, May 16, 2019. Nash County is among the areas seeing an influx of new, formerly-urban residents.

There’s nothing like country living: fresh air, wide open spaces... propane cannons?

North Carolinians are moving to rural communities for retirement or to escape high housing costs. These counties are trying to welcome their new residents while also maintaining what makes them unique — like their rich agricultural output.

This brings us back to the cannons. Jonathan Edwards, Nash County’s communications director, says farmers use them to kill pests.

“It's a long tube connected to a propane tank. And when they ignite, it creates a blast of sound that sounds similar to a gunshot.”

Edwards says a few years ago, a new resident complained to the Board of County Commissioners about the sound of one of those cannons. County leaders decided they needed to do more to welcome newcomers and explain the unique aspects of farm life.

The result is a video called, “What to Expect When Moving to a Rural Community.” Near the beginning of the video, Sandy Hall, an agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, walks new residents through the sights, sounds, and odors of country living.

“There are certain smells associated with livestock. And many times, farmers have large herds of animals that they are caring for and it's just a part of what they do in agriculture and part of the nature of farming,” she says.

Toward the end of the 12-minute video, Hall invites new Nash Countians to go on a tour of a local farm.

“Agriculture is a big business and in most rural communities. It looks very different from the west to the east,” says Patrick Woodie, president and CEO of the NC Rural Center.

His organization tracks population and demographic changes in the state’s rural counties. Woodie says only Texas has a larger rural population than North Carolina. While many states are seeing a decline in rural residents, a surge of North Carolinians are moving to rural areas to retire or — in Nash County’s case —escape the high housing costs in the Triangle.

“So helping people that might be newcomers to understand, that maybe have never lived in a rural area before, what it's like to get behind a tractor at a certain time of the year when something significant is going on with one of the major crops is a really proactive way of kind of managing people's expectations,” he said.

Woodie says rural communities are trying several ways to welcome new residents — from baskets full of local goodies to community orientations. And then there’s Jacqueline Gottlieb’s approach. She’s the director of the Hinton Rural Life Center in Clay County, in the far western corner of the state.

“I moved here 11 years ago. And the story or the tale is you have to have four generations in the ground to be a local,” she jokes.

Clay County is seeing a big influx of retirees — its population is projected to grow by 11.5% by 2030. Gottlieb runs a couple of programs to help these residents get to know their new home. One delivers firewood to people who need it. The other brings transplants and locals together for face-to-face conversations.

“We'll talk in the class and we'll go, 'Okay, well what's the perspective of somebody that's been here for a while? Well, what's the perspective of someone who's moved in? And how do we leverage the value in both to make it a better place?'”

Those conversations in Clay County and elsewhere will be needed over the next few decades. According to the state demographer, North Carolina’s population is projected to grow by more than three million people by 2050.

Bradley George is WUNC's AM reporter. A North Carolina native, his public radio career has taken him to Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville and most recently WUSF in Tampa. While there, he reported on the COVID-19 pandemic and was part of the station's Murrow award winning coverage of the 2020 election. Along the way, he has reported for NPR, Marketplace, The Takeaway, and the BBC World Service. Bradley is a graduate of Guilford College, where he majored in Theatre and German.