The Associated Press quoted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s assessment about American agriculture during his recent speech at a forum sponsored by Farm Journal. It’s “becoming less and less relevant,” he said.
Relevancy in Washington is always and irrevocably tied to votes. Nothing personal there; that’s just the way it is. And anyone who examines the 2012 voting pattern will see a huge schism between rural and urban America. We’ve become two different countries. Even though the Democrats won the presidency with the largest margin of victory this century and picked up several unexpected Senate seats, rural America voted overwhelmingly Republican.
Here are some agonizing facts reported by AP: “Exit polls. . .found 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 37 percent backing President Barack Obama. Two-thirds of those rural voters said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”
Looking at a map of how people voted shows how stark the division is – heavily populated counties tended to vote overwhelmingly Democratic; lightly populated counties were heavily Republican. Are we experiencing a political civil war being fought between rural and urban America?
“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” Vilsack said during his speech. “It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”
With cities, suburbs and exurbs growing in population and farm belt counties emptying out at an astonishing rate, Vilsack’s call for a “different thought process” might turn up some new ideas that will keep agricultural America politically viable.
Right now, we’re just hanging on by our fingernails. And more than a few ag groups want to use those well-chewed nails to slash at each another. It’s an internecine battle that wastes valuable talent and resources that should be spent on explaining our story to the 98% who have never been near a farm. It allows those that don’t wish us well to define what we do to those that don’t know us at all.
A rhetorical question was posed by Vilsack, “Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” His answer was painfully honest, especially by beltway standards. “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.”
Vilsack pointed to farmers who voted on wedge issues such as government over-regulation. He mentioned the Environmental Protection Agencies’ proposal to regulate farm dust which persisted as an unfounded fear long after the Obama administration said it had no such intention. He talked about the proposed Labor Department regulation intended to keep younger children away from the most dangerous farm jobs; a trial balloon that popped shortly after it was floated.
To which I might add the tremendous knee jerk reaction to the unfounded fear that the president intended to institute draconian gun control laws, even though the administration has always denied any intent and no politician would ever consider putting limits on what now must be called the new “third rail” of American politics.
“We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” Vilsack said. “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now.”
Vilsack encouraged the ag community to find new markets, to work to promote global exports and replace a “preservation mindset with a growth mindset.”
In other words, don’t try to keep your granddaddy’s tried and true farming methods as sacred and immutable. “The times,” said some old poet, “they are a’changing.” And they don’t give a damn about the way things were.
Cattlemen’s Beef Board member Al Davis, who also serves as representative of the very rural and ever emptying District 43 in the Nebraska state legislature put it best. While campaigning for that seat a few months ago, he said, “What we need is a Marshall Plan for rural counties. Nebraska has taken its agricultural heritage for granted in many ways. Property taxes are too high, for instance, and every dollar you take from a ranch is a dollar that can’t be invested in ranching. We have a lot of very innovative people out here but we have to figure out how to use their expertise.”
He said they also need to embrace diversity because it is an issue important to young people who are leaving rural areas.
“We’ve got something to market here,” Davis said. “We’ve got something to be proactive about. Let’s spend our time and our resources and our energy doing that and I think if we do, we’re going to have a lot of young people who want to be part of that future.”
And maybe rural America can regain the clout that it once had.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.