They certainly were a long way from home. The small groups of women and men who gathered around picnic tables along the Washington, Mo., riverfront spoke mostly French, Italian and English as they discussed issues transcending the miles.
Part of the European Rural University, the group of college professors, government officials and other policymakers came all the way from their home countries in Europe to learn how Missourians deal with a changing rural economy.
"The way we do things in America is very different, and they're interested in seeing that and sharing ideas," says Jim Scott, director of the Community Policy Analysis Center at the University of Missouri and the person responsible for bringing what he calls "a learning community of Europeans" to Missouri.
Normally members of the European Rural University travel throughout member countries to study community development and farming issues. But for the first time the group is touring the United States and, specifically, Missouri. Funded in part by the European Union, the ERU ventured across the Atlantic to study how Americans deal with changes in the farm economy, as well as issues such as urban sprawl and protecting local culture.
"Europeans value maintaining rural villages, and they value keeping farmers on the land," says Scott. "The physical space that we have is so expansive, we think we can just spread out. The space in many European settings is constrained, so it's more community-based, where we're more concerned with the individual."
|The European group learned that Missourians share many of their same concerns about providing economic opportunities in rural areas without destroying the environment.|
This year's European Rural University tour was made up of members from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, England, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy. Also participating in the week-long tour were Americans and Canadians from university agriculture extension agencies and rural sociology departments. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis also participated in the tour.
The theme of the Missouri tour, which began in St. Louis and traveled along the Missouri River valley to Kansas City, is "A Sense of Time, A Sense of Place." A tour along the state's namesake river fit that idea, Scott says.
"You build communities best when it's around your heritage and when you respect that sense of timing and place," he says. "The Missouri River was the key to our westward expansion—and at a time when the Europeans came here and formed our culture in many ways. And so all along the way we've seen places that have been affected most by the presence of the river."
The visitors were shown historic Missouri River towns like St. Charles, Washington and Hermann, all reminiscent of European villages. It was clear that both the United States and Europe share many of the same concerns about providing economic opportunities in rural areas without destroying the environment.
The tour of rural Missouri actually began in an urban setting at the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis. The group also stopped in St. Charles to view tourist areas surrounding the city's historic district and to discuss the impact of urban development and inner-city decline on surrounding rural areas.
That impact is being felt at the Riegel Dairy Farm outside Washington, where the group talked with the members of the Riegel family about the challenges of staying in the dairy business amidst increasing pressure from development. That growth affects everything, from buying farmland to hiring help to milking cows.
The Europeans and their hosts continued along the river, visiting Stone Hill Winery in Hermann, the Capitol in Jefferson City, the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin and the small Cooper County town of Blackwater, which refused to die when its historic business center was slated for demolition.
The tour concluded in Kansas City with a visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum. The Europeans not only experienced a visual journey along the Missouri River, but also enjoyed the state's many sounds and tastes. From folk ballads about the Big Muddy while dining at the Governor's Mansion, to traditional fiddle tunes in Columbia and jazz with a little barbecue in Kansas City, the visitors were treated to the breadth of the state's culture and history.
"A highlight of the trip was to see and encounter the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, because they are mythical rivers to us. They are jazz. They are the construction of America, really," says Josy Richez-Battesti, president of the European Rural University and a French university professor. "The rivers are the concentrated essence of the United States."
For Richez-Battesti, who studies rural and farm policies in her native country, visiting Missouri broke several stereotypes and confirmed others she held about America.
"A sense of place is part of the title of this itinerary, and that came across to me very strongly. I have thought Americans weren't very attached to their places and that they would just get in the RV vehicles and move around every five years," Richez-Battesti says.
And although there was plenty of evidence that the family farm is still alive in Missouri, Richez-Battesti was disturbed by what she describes as large-scale industrial agriculture in the state.
"Missouri is very agricultural and very rural, but there is a large industrial type of agriculture that predominates."
Richez-Battesti and her fellow travelers will take home their impressions of a rural state struggling with a number of issues. Those Missourians who participated will be taken to a gathering of the more than 500 members of the European Rural University in Ireland next spring. And a second tour of the United States is in the works.
That meeting will conclude the efforts of these two dozen world travelers who came together to share ideas and e-mail addresses.
"One of the things I did want to see come out of the tour was the building of relationships and an understanding that we do share many of the same issues," says Vickie Rightmyer, a research analyst at the University of Missouri's Community Policy Analysis Center.
"I think that happened. People are sharing and talking about what has worked and what hasn't, whether they're in Ireland or Missouri."