Capitol View - Vilsack: Challenging Rural America’s Relevance

By J.L. Schmidt - Statehouse Correspondent, The Nebraska Press Association

I grew up in rural America. If you are reading this, chances are pretty good that you did too.

So what does it mean when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture says that rural America is “becoming less and less relevant?” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Democratic governor of Iowa, said it last week at a Farm Journal sponsored forum.

What is Rural America? It’s home to about a sixth of the nation’s population. Just who they are and what that means depends on who is doing the statistical measuring and for what reason. The Associated Press says that rural voters accounted for just 14 percent of the turnout in last month’s election, with 61 percent of them supporting Republican Mitt Romney and 17 percent Barack Obama. According to the AP, two-thirds of those rural voters said that government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

Vilsack lays the blame for Congress’ inability to pass a farm bill on the squabbling going on among groups in rural America. His department says that 50 percent of rural counties have lost population in the past four years and poverty rates are higher there than in metropolitan areas. As the population shifts to cities and suburbs, the gap grows between people who care about a booming ag economy and those who just want food to eat.

The Secretary says rural Americans need to be proactive instead of reactive. He suggests replacing complaints about EPA regulations on farm dust and labor rules on young people and dangerous jobs – neither of which materialized – with a positive focus on expanding global markets and better communication between the folks who grow it and those who consume it.

Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb., (pop. 851), says some of the problem in rural America can be traced to the decline of the family farm. In a recent news release, Hassebrook said that increasing farm size and absentee ownership have caused “social conditions in the local community to deteriorate.” 

The large farms “have a few wealthy elites, a majority of poor laborers, and virtually no middle class. The absence of a middle class has a serious negative effect on social and commercial service, public education and local government,” he said.

Hassebrook said that rural America can’t turn back the clock and recapture the family farm communities of a generation ago, but communities can use that same pride of ownership and sense of responsibility to create new owner-operated rural business in areas from ecotourism to gourmet foods such as jams and jellies and salsa and dried meats. He calls these “new 21st century opportunities for rural Americans to own the fruits of their labor.”

Vilsack said “It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America.” “It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”

Mr. Secretary, might I suggest that you sit down and talk with Mr. Hassebrook. No squabbles. No political fights (you’re both Democrats after all). Just have that adult conversation. Soon.

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