In this three-part series, Inman News examines America’s shrinking farm real estate. Urbanites tired of crammed city living, along with population growth and sprawling development, are a few trends affecting farmland. Some farmers are finding themselves on the edge of developed areas, whereas they used to be located in much more remote regions. See Part 2: Farmers take a stand to preserve land and Part 3: Rural land shrinking at rapid rates.)

Lower costs of living, lush countrysides, friendly faces and less traffic are some of the magnets pulling urban dwellers all over the United States to relocate to the country, if two families, one in California and one in Alabama, are any indication.

“We couldn’t save enough money to cover our mortgage payments after we retired,” said Helen Learn. With her husband Jim, she moved in 2000 from Walnut Creek, Calif., an upscale city in the San Francisco Bay Area, to Weimar, Calif., population about 1,000.

“Any time we tried to go outside of Walnut Creek we’d get stuck in traffic. It didn’t matter what time it was, or what day. It was wearing us down,” Helen Learn said.

The area also has a high cost of living, another factor in the Learns’ decision to move. Day-to-day costs and a high mortgage loan left them stuck in less-than-optimal jobs and worried about how they would finance their retirement, Helen Learn said. She and her husband are in their fifties.

As the housing boom drives real estate prices higher in urban and suburban areas, some prospective home buyers find their version of the American dream in rural areas, edging development ever closer to the nation’s farmland.

Compared to the congested, expensive Bay Area, Weimar, Calif., nestled in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, looked like a cool drink of water on a hot day to the Learns.

“We’re in the Sierra Foothills in northern California. You’re either in a deep ravine or on top of a ridge,” Helen Learn explained. “We’re on a ridge and have a beautiful view of the hills.” Because of the geographic configuration, few of the neighboring homes – or the neighbors – are visible, adding to the sense of privacy, she said.

Because housing prices are so high in the Bay Area, the Learns were able to sell their Walnut Creek home for a considerable profit and buy a new home in Weimar for a reasonable amount. “Homes in my old neighborhood in Walnut Creek were going for around $500,000 in 2000,” Helen Learn said. “We bought this house in Weimar in 2000 for around $200,000.”

The mortgage payment dropped so dramatically that Helen Learn is now able to work part time.

“Before, I did computer support, and I had made a goal for myself that by 2000 either I could quit that job and start something else or be out of the Bay Area,” Helen Learn said. “It turned out I could do both.”

She answered a newspaper ad for a bed and breakfast in a nearby city, where she works to this day. Her husband Jim, a graphic artist, found a job at a pool company in Sacramento, a 45-minute drive away.

“Less people,” her husband said as to what he was looking to find in Weimar.

“This is a man who if we go to a restaurant and there’s five people waiting ahead of us he won’t wait,” commented his wife. “But it’s true, we were looking for a slower pace of life,” she said.

Like anywhere else, Weimar has its drawbacks, she said. It’s hot, with temperatures often in the 90s in summertime, and it snows in the winter.

When the couple first moved to Weimar, some adjustment was necessary.

“There’s a nice little movie theater in Colfax, a town not too far away,” Helen Learn said. As was customary for the Learns, they arrived a half-hour early to park and get a good seat – only to discover dozens of empty parking spaces. “We realized, this is a small town. We can get there 10 minutes before show time and park immediately outside the theater,” she said. “We never have to search for parking.”

The Learns fear that, ironically, the very features that make small towns so appealing may eventually draw so many people that they’ll become big cities.

“Placer County was one of the fastest-growing counties in California in 2004,” Helen Learn said. “The population of Colfax is expected to double or triple in the next 10 years. They are going through a lot of growing pains.”

Despite these fears, the Learns are happy overall with their move and would do it again. Similarly, William and Gretchen Collins are pleased with their decision to move to a rural area.

Living first in Miami, then Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and then in Cairo, Egypt, William and Gretchen Collins burned out on urban living in a big way. A visit to friends in Dothan, Ala., helped them see the light – or at least the warmth and friendliness of small-town life.

“We were babysitting our friends’ dogs for two weeks in Dothan, and at first we thought the people were on drugs,” said Gretchen Collins.

“Everywhere, people smile at you. When you are in the grocery store looking at vegetables, they start a conversation. Actually, they start conversations when you’re walking through the parking lot,” she said. She still exchanges e-mails and phone calls with her agent at United Country/Properties South, the brokerage that helped her find her house in Dothan. “Everyone here is so friendly, I feel like I have an extended family.”

As with the Learns, retirement was a big factor in Gretchen and William Collins’ relocation. When they first became acquainted with Dothan, the two were living in Cairo and maintaining a nominal residence in Florida.

The dog-sitting visit to their friends convinced them that Dothan was where they wanted to be. Shortly later, William Collin’s seven-year Cairo stint as a fiber optics engineer with USAID came to a close and he retired to Dothan with Gretchen.

“Access to a hospital was important to us, since we’re getting older,” Gretchen Collins said. “Southeast Alabama Medical Center is only six miles away.” A rural setting and its attendant slower pace of life also attracted the couple.

Dothan, population 58,435, is surrounded by ranchland and farmland.

“I’ve got a pasture on either side of me. All I see is cows. In the morning I walk out with the dogs and the cows are all standing mooing over the fence,” said Gretchen Collins.

Like Learn, Collins worries that the ever-increasing influx of new residents may rob Dothan of the very charm that attracted them. “I hope it stays this way and doesn’t grow too quickly,” she said. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Dothan’s total population for 2004 was 58,435, with the 2009 population estimated at 60,230.

Collins once worked as a breath alcohol testing technician for the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and sees her transition to Dothan as something of a flight from the impersonality and crime of big cities.

“No one ever locks their door around here,” Collins said. Shortly after moving to Dothan, the two returned from a trip to discover that the neighbors – whose son had once owned the house – had let themselves in with their son’s old key and left bags of produce on the kitchen counter.

“For a city dweller, that was a shocker,” Collins said.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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