An "adult conversation" about farm politics
Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack touring Farm Fresh to You facilities & speaking on MyPlate.gov & the American Jobs Act, Sept. 26, 2011, West Sacramento, CA. [Photo by NRDC California via Creative Commons.]
The farm bill extension slipped into the fiscal deal lends evidence to a growing perception: that political power is eroding in rural America. Politico's David Rogers called it a "wake-up call"
for farmers and rural folks:
As agriculture has grown more concentrated, it commands fewer votes. Indeed, consumer fears about milk prices drove the deliberations more than dairy farmers. And in these tough economic times for the nation, the farm sector has been enjoying relative prosperity and in the eyes of many lawmakers has become more complacent politically.
Farmers make up less than 2% of the U.S. population today. About 20% of Americans live in rural towns. And just 14% of them voted last November.
How do you achieve anything politically when you make up less than 2% of the population? And when the party a majority of your fellow rural citizens voted for is struggling to find a message that resonates with 21st century America?
These are the questions farmers and the rural communities they live in are grappling with in 2013. The nation's symbolic "farmer-in-chief", USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, threw down the gauntlet at the end of 2012 to get farmers to think critically about these very questions. At a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal, Vilsack said we need "an adult conversation with folks in rural America". According to the AP:
"Why is it that we don't have a farm bill?" said Vilsack. "It isn't just the differences of policy. It's the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it."
You can read a big chunk of Vilsack's speech here. Vilsack chastised rural America for picking fights that don't resonate with the rest of the country – howling over regulations that are more rumor than fact ("farm dust"); fighting for the right for children to do farm labor that many consider dangerous (Brian Mann reported on this issue last spring); and attacking food stamp beneficiaries, many of whom are senior citizens and single moms.
The major industry trade groups responded predictably. The America Farm Bureau Federation says it still believes farms are over-regulated, calling new rules a "regulatory creek" (sounds like an awkward analogy to me, but hey…)
But let's stop for a moment and ask what would that "adult conversation" consist of? Let's say rural Americans had one moment at the podium, when all those city folk sat quietly and really listened.
What would you say? What do farmers need most? What's your headline?