Firm offers modern-day Green Acres for urban dreamers

Although gas prices are hiking up the cost of commuting, they're not deterring some people from pursuing their dreams of living in the country and being farmers.

To them, a small-town real estate service that's eyeing Canada as a potential market is providing a Green Acres-like opportunity.

The service, based in Kansas City, Missouri, is called United Country Real Estate. I was introduced to the franchise-based company last week at an agricultural communications and marketing conference. There, at a trade show booth, company owner Dan Duffy explained that he and his network of 4,000 agents and 700 offices across the U.S. are helping connect what he openly calls idyllic lifestyle seekers with their dream properties.

Finding affordable dream homes is what we hope all real estate agencies will do for us, regardless of where they're located. But usually, potential buyers don't ask agents to purposefully find places for them in the middle of nowhere, halfway across the country or the world.

But that's United Country's niche. Duffy says about 50 per cent of its clients buy properties from out of state. Typically, they're investors, or buyers who are tired of cities.

Like wannabe farmer Eddie Albert of Green Acres fame, they've bought into the romanticized image of living in rural America. They've also helped keep U.S. rural property values from following their urban counterparts down the tube, as a result of the sub-prime mortgage disaster.

Duffy says the same recipe could play out in Canada. Our wilderness, wide open spaces and pristine landscapes have grand appeal, and he wants to talk to small-town agencies who might be interested in becoming part of his network.

He's not the first to consider this, and he won't necessarily start a trend. For example, Ontario has seen a 17 per cent increase in its horse population since 2001, attributable in part to a growing number of new horse owners, rather than existing farmers.

And real estate companies that specialize in finding commercial farms for international buyers are well established. But usually, those buyers are real farmers, not idyllic lifestyle seekers. However, rising commodity prices make farming look more attractive than it has for years. Not only do buyers think they'll get a new lifestyle, they might actually make some money farming, too, although income is not their main concern.

Those of us who were raised outside cities know the realities of rural living are different than the postcard image suggests. Country life has a definite beauty. But it also has frustrations.

Among them are government regulations. For example, the same deer, elk, wild turkeys and other animals people want to find in their camera viewfinders wreak havoc on crops, and farmers get little compensation.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture calls this damage "hit and run." Farmers have the right to get rid of certain wildlife, but only if the animals are caught in the act of destroying a crop. Even then, an increasing number of farms are in no-shoot zones of cities and towns.

New farmers may be surprised to find compensation for such losses is based on a quarter-century old model. The federation has been trying to get the province to change that, but hasn't had any luck.

With harvest around the corner, it's launching a new missive, hoping outdated compensation regulations can be reviewed.

"Wildlife management in Ontario has become wildlife wastefulness," says the federation. "Ontario needs to manage its resources for the benefit of the species, farmers and all Ontarians."

Indeed, that's just one of country living's challenges, a big reason why moving from the city needs to be an eyes-wide-open decision. Multiply the challenges exponentially if farming's on your horizon.

But in Ontario, if you someday see "sold" on a United Country for-sale sign, you'll know the challenge is continuing to be accepted by modern-day Eddie Alberts who believe Utopia lies somewhere down a country road.

About The Author

Urban Cowboy

Raising awareness and promoting dialogue about current food and agriculture issues.


Headshot of Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts is a faculty member in the Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications program at the University of Illinois. As an agricultural journalist, he is the past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists and a lifetime achievement award recipient from the Canadian Farm Writers' Federation. His programs and research papers have been recognized nationally and internationally through awards from the Journal of Applied Communications, the National Agri-Marketing Association, the Association for Communications Excellence, and others.