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Rural Magazine Changes with Countryside


Ever since the electric light bulb was invented, a monthly newspaper called Grit has been the source of helpful hints and happy stories for rural Americans. "Grit" is a reference both to the sometimes-grueling life on farms and in small towns, and to the resilience and resourcefulness of the people who live there. Now, Grit is modernizing its look and the way it portrays country living.

Published for 124 straight years in rural Pennsylvania, and more recently in Kansas in the American heartland, Grit dispensed homespun advice to its nationwide readership about everything from fixing pump handles to making rhubarb pies. But this past September, it switched to a slick magazine format and recast itself as an observer of a new kind of lifestyle that might be called "rural chic."

"More than 80 percent of tractors sold in the United States this year will be under 50 horsepower," says Grit publisher Bryan Welch, who adds such small machines are not sufficient for agribusiness. "That means the vast majority of husbandry of the land in non-urban America is being conducted on smaller parcels of property by people who are doing it as a form of recreation, a form of art, as a lifestyle choice."

Welch says Grit is reaching out to that audience "to stimulate them and entertain them and give them cool things that they can do on their property."

Because life on the farm and in small towns was often hard, and the income meager, the traditional American migration pattern has been pointed toward cities. But Grit's editor, K. C. Compton, who grew up in a small Oklahoma town, lived in big cities, and now resides in the college town of Lawrence, Kansas, says Grit's target audience is the millions of Americans who've gone back to their rural roots or ventured into the country for the first time.

"It's a sweet life out in the country and in small towns, or can be," Ms. Compton says. "A lot of us are looking for ways that we can raise some of our own food and feel a bit more self-sufficient. It's possible now to be very wired and hooked into the rest of the world. But I think a lot of people are still looking for a lifestyle that is manageable, less full of stress and strife."

If there's a profile of the new Grit magazine's ideal readers, it would be John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty. They're not dirt farmers, mill workers, or small-town clerks at the feed store, scraping out a living. They're artists, landscape painters, who moved from the bustling New York City area to Kansas, where they could afford land, build a studio, and create art in the middle of nature.

Mr. Hulsey says he missed seeing the ball of the sun come up and set each day and the chance to walk amid the subjects he paints: "If we have a crop at all, it's the light and the landscape that we're harvesting, the visual parts of it for our art. Our world has really been built out of this contemplative life that we have in the country, and the friends we've made."

Every day, John Hulsey and Ann Trusty separately paint rural scenes and post the result on their website. Ann Trusty says they're out on the prairie even on the coldest winter day, when the Kansas wind howls through the tall grass under purple skies, and it's a tough to hold a paintbrush. "I have special gloves with the fingers cut out to keep my hands warm," she says with a laugh. "And little hand warmers."

Editor Compton says the new Grit, now published twice monthly, writes about things like making a trellis, caring for barn cats, and buying a robot that will mow your lawn. "We talk about gadgets and the technology that helps things work, growing a great garden, raising food and harvesting food and how to can and preserve the food. And we have lots and lots of really great recipes."

Even though they're canting the rural magazine toward comfortable living, the publishers kept the name Grit in part because, they say, it still takes plenty of determination to leave the urban cultural centers, coffee shops, big libraries and sports teams for the chance to raise chickens and gather your own breakfast eggs, walk your dog without a leash, get to know your neighbors, and awaken each country morning to a mockingbird's call.

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