Jolley: Has rural America become a political afterthought?

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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.

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IA  |  December, 12, 2012 at 05:27 PM

Hey, wait a minute. What, exactly, in the past 4 years has Vilsack actually DONE for us? There must be something but I cannot think of anything. And here he is bawling us out and telling us to become properly submissive to liberal urban elitists. What guarantee are we given we will enjoy boundless prosperity and permanent political relevance if we enable foodie folly and become loyal communal wards of HSUS? How can Vilsack bring us any that when he hasn't delivered up anything of note up to now? What has Vilsack been doing besides standing around with his thumb up his butt and quietly despising us out here in rural America? Fire the rascal. He won't be missed.

Kansas  |  December, 13, 2012 at 03:39 AM

Marshall, I think you've missed the point. It's not what Vilsack has done for you, it's how much clout rural America still has. The loss of political influence is due to a loss of votes which Vilsack (or anyone else) can't control. What can be done to turn that around? It's a subject, I think, that must be faced and debated.

Kansas  |  December, 13, 2012 at 03:39 AM

Marshall, I think you've missed the point. It's not what Vilsack has done for you, it's how much clout rural America still has. The loss of political influence is due to a loss of votes which Vilsack (or anyone else) can't control. What can be done to turn that around? It's a subject, I think, that must be faced and debated.

poli sci neophyte    
PA  |  December, 13, 2012 at 07:20 AM

Vilsack is merely reciting a timeworn truism. Urban and suburban populations eclipsed agricultural population in the U.S. ages ago -- we've been less than 10% of the nation's population for at least a couple of generations, now less than 2% right now aren't we? How does Vilsack suggest we turn that around and make up the difference? We have all the clout we will ever need if we will team with food processors and retailers to drive food prices up triple or quadruple to start. Then keep 'em rising. It's money that talks in Washington, not votes and we control the food...and we could have the money if we would just take it (heh, learned that from watching Wall Street banks in action) Sure, we can export food but we need to make our political opponents here at home pay and pay and pay some more until they appreciate our relevance. Just soak the rich -- isn't that the mantra of Vilsack's party? Seems we could adopt some good old fashioned "tax and spend" principles in line with Vilsack's advice, after all.

kansas  |  December, 13, 2012 at 09:11 AM

poli sci, you've started a chicken and egg argument. Is it money or votes that rule Washington? I say votes because it leads to money. A good counter argument could be money leads to votes, even if it did fail in several key states during the recent election. And 'soak the rich' as a mantra of Vilsack's party? Isn't that a euphemism for paying your fair share? Seriously, let's leave the emotionally laden political terms out of this discussion. With a declining rural population and less money to contribute, how do we increase our presence in Washington?

kansas  |  December, 13, 2012 at 09:11 AM

poli sci, you've started a chicken and egg argument. Is it money or votes that rule Washington? I say votes because it leads to money. A good counter argument could be money leads to votes, even if it did fail in several key states during the recent election. And 'soak the rich' as a mantra of Vilsack's party? Isn't that a euphemism for paying your fair share? Seriously, let's leave the emotionally laden political terms out of this discussion. With a declining rural population and less money to contribute, how do we increase our presence in Washington?

Central Montana  |  December, 13, 2012 at 09:32 AM

Jolly and the rest, good points. What is agriculture going to do about it? We do control the land but we have not created a reasonable exit plan for older farmers to pass along the operation to young farmers, not for free but at a reasonable price. Pile on top large investment in equipment and commodity prices that have not keep pace with inflation and you have the situation described. Much like the fiscal condition of the US ($16 Trillion debt, $55 Trillion in unfunded obligations and ZERO dollars in reserve to fund them) and you have a wreck. Poli Sci does point to an example of Wall Street that panicked the federal government into giving them $700 BILLION because the financial system was going to crash (not sure that is true, some would have lost money but this is their risk). Wall Street gamed the situation to make money (a lot of it) and any losses would be held by the public. I do not think ag has to stoop that low but it could be more effective at pressuring policy. Like our government, now is the time for all of agriculture to come together and create a plan to transform our situation in to a powerful option for people that are willing to work hard and smart.

California  |  December, 13, 2012 at 10:37 AM

PoliSci makes a good point about money. As much as I hate to agree with Michael Pollan, food is too cheap for urban dwelling Americans, way too cheap as it turns out. We hear plenty of moaning from Pollan clones about how "big ag" has a dangerous stranglehold on Americans but that is all empty hyperbole. It is also the answer to our milquetoast agriculture dilemma -- we work too cheap, we sell too cheap, we die off too cheap. We simply must step up the pace of consolidating our food system until we truly do maintain the dreaded stranglehold we need to choke political opposition into seeing things our way for a change. Until our urban brethren truly fear us and are virtually owned by us we will be politically irrelevant and treated as expendable by them. Sound extreme? It shouldn't. List just one or two good reasons why we shouldn't grow retail food prices to the limit of our political and societal importance. What other industry (including medicine and health care) willfully stops short of maximizing its revenues? Why should agriculture be any different? Vilsack blasted us with frustrated criticism in an adolescent tirade. He certainly didn't offer any workable suggestions and, fecund as many of us may be, we can never beget enough good farm folk to repopulate rural areas on a par with urban. I simply must interpret Vilsack's scolding as a call for the American farm and food sectors to step up and systematically, unemotionally seize and retain all the control we can reach. And that would be quite a lot, even on a global scale. Did you hear a different practical suggestion in any of Vilsack's comments?

Mississippi  |  December, 13, 2012 at 01:00 PM

Chuck didn't you give this same news from Mr. Vilsack about 2 1/2 years ago? You know about how he looked around rural places and was real disappointed with us out here. I remember he told us export some garden truck and sell the rest in a farmers market and if we hosted hunting and fishing we will prosper. If we did the way he told us the first time he wouldn't have to tell us off now. When will we listen and do as we are told.

John Munsell    
Miles City, MT  |  December, 13, 2012 at 01:22 PM

USA Ag is very efficient, rasing a surplus of food, a great % of which is exported, one of the few products we make with a positive balance of trade. We should be using our food as a political tool, but we tend to give it away. Only when we face food shortages will the typical American realize the essential role domestic Ag plays. Independent ag producers have little voice in our politics (as Vilsack admits), while Corporate Ag, much of which is multinational, has great influence and access to all our elected officials. Unfortunately, domestic Ag producers are now but a piece of the global food pie, which is baked in corporate ovens, not on the farm & ranch. We are inextricably interlinked with global trade, in which prices are dictated by multinational purchasers which can purchase from whoever is cheapest, regardless of equivalency in food safety, labor laws, environmental reg's, etc.......all under the auspices of WTO which could care less about the viability of America's ag sector. Face it: we pledge allegiance to the global flag, not Old Glory. Our price to pay to be a good global citizen. John Munsell

Midwest  |  December, 13, 2012 at 02:50 PM

Marko - what is going to happen to rural America when we no longer have control of the land? We see more and more urban investors at these public land auctions - driving up the prices. Buying farms at record price. Then they turn around and cash rent it out. Older farmers really need to consider what they are doing with their estates - before they sell off the next generations future. We hear older generations complaining about rural exodus but what efforts do they make to retain their youth?

Central Montana  |  December, 13, 2012 at 03:23 PM

Annie: Well said. The average age of US farmer/rancher is 60 (will be with the new census) the larges group is those over 70 and the smallest group is those under 30. This trend of age is also global. As investors leave wall street, the are buying up land. We are playing with our food supply. We need an agricultural conversation. It is not where we are but where are we going (David Walker).

John Munsell    
Miles City, MT  |  December, 13, 2012 at 03:29 PM

Can't blame rural folks for selling their land at horrendously high prices, we'd all do the same. It should be no surprise that the younger folks choose not to remain on the place, realizing how difficult it is to make ends meet. Also no surprise that the older generation encourages the younger to pursue other fields of endeavor. John Munsell

District of Columbia  |  December, 13, 2012 at 04:00 PM

Now see here. Just listen to yourselves. No wonder our own Secretary Vilsack is unable to carry on an adult conversation with you people. Just like children you rural people make everything about yourselves. You are in the minority and you are here to serve us at our pleasure. Stop flapping your gums and get back to work. Secretary Vilsack clearly states you will have to diversify to keep your children laboring contentedly on the farm to feed us. An adult intellect could easily comprehend the simple concept of diversity. As an example, you might permit each of your children a few minutes at the close of each workday in the afterglow of an entrancing rural sunset to cultivate a small patch of heirloom turnips of their very own, some of which they would export, say to Poland or Greece, the remainder to sell to us on Saturday afternoons from a quaint farm truck alongside the state road. It would all be so very wonderfully educational and diverse and your enraptured children would learn to be appropriately deferential to us consumers as their superiors and benefactors. I suspect you rural people deliberately misunderstand Secretary Vilsack's excellent talking points. It is all so very, very droll really. Some days I wish we were back home in Chicago. I really do.

Earnest Crist    
Oklahoma  |  December, 13, 2012 at 05:28 PM

Personally I think we should keep going crazy over every made up cow fart/ gun control/ creeping socialism issue that the people who are supposed to represent us in D.C. Make up (or the political operatives they are alingned with make up) to whip us into a frenzy and not really pay attention to REAL issues like the farm bill or infrastructure funding or funding for Ag research or funding the VOLUNTARY programs like 319 at EPA ( know about that? Nope. And you won't find out about it listening to our agriculture groups) or the shape of land grant schools or ensuring the existance of rural post offices. Don't listen to vilsack or anyone else who talks about real issues...after all I'm sure the black helicopters are coming now to take our rights away!!!!!

north iowa  |  December, 13, 2012 at 06:12 PM

Did you know that Tom Vilsack, the United States Secretary of Agriculture, wife ran for the US congessional seat and one of her backers was the HSUS...does this not bother anyone???

CO  |  December, 13, 2012 at 06:28 PM

Yeah. Sensible Iowa voters rejected Christie Vilsack, as they should. That doesn't bother me but I bet Secretary Tom finds it chilly around the household these past few weeks. The HSUS link is no surprise. Vilsack says we need to submit to the liberal agenda so we can become politically relevant. I guess he figures Obama will be president into perpetuity and he just wants us poor ignorant rubes to be on the winning side for once. Real thoughtful of him. Real caring.

Central Montana  |  December, 13, 2012 at 09:29 PM

The discussion in congress of the cliff is just the symptom. In 2012 every dollar the federal government took in , every nickle, paid for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the growing interest on the debt. We borrowed money from us (mostly future generations) and foreign government to run the rest of the government (including the ag department). Disability Insurance of Social Security will be exhausted in 2016 and start adding to our defect. The same will be true of Hospital Insurance of Medicare by 2024. Congress has been using unused interest from Social Security in the budget and the fund is owed $2 trillion from the general fund. Social Security will be exhausted by 2033 only then providing 75% of a benefit. We can not depend on the fed to help us, we must invest in our selves.

Minnesota  |  December, 14, 2012 at 06:46 AM

We need a timeline here to document some of these earth shaking discoveries. On what date and precisely at what time did Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wake up, look around and realize for the first time America's rural areas are more sparsely populated than our urban centers? Too bad Tom doesn't get out more. His remarkable powers of observation might be very helpful to us out here in the middle of nowhere. But we should be grateful he graced us with his piercing analysis (such as it is), and all the way from Washington DC! Now we know we don't have as many votes out here as they have in the cities, so we should just check with them before election day so we can vote the same way they do. Presto! Instant political relevance. That was easy! What will be Vilsack's next problem to solve for us? Maybe we all should dress the same way affluent city people do?

Old Farmer    
Iowa  |  December, 15, 2012 at 09:07 AM

Sorry to tell you, the government owns the land. You get to rent the land every year and pay the government rent called property tax and they set the price. Also the supreme court ruled that there is no private ownership of land in the U.S.A.

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