What Tom Vilsack said about his tour of rural America:
“What I saw was a silent crisis in rural America. Too many of our small towns are struggling. Although they are some of the hardest working folks I know, rural Americans earn, on average, $11,000 less than their urban counterparts each year. And they are more likely to live in poverty.
More rural Americans are over the age of 65 and few have graduated college. More than half of America's rural counties are losing population and with it, political representation.”
Those words were just part of his much longer speech published by the Huffington Post. The rest of his comments were decidedly and politically upbeat, filled with glowing federal promises to help an embattled rural population regain its place in America.
Here are his bulleted points:
• We must develop new markets to provide new income opportunities for American producers by promoting exports abroad, by supporting domestic local and regional food systems that keep wealth in rural communities, and by facilitating the creation of ecosystems markets that reward landowners for taking care of the environment;
• We must create new opportunities for prosperity and small business growth with investments into rural broadband access;
• We must create green jobs that can't be exported by promoting the production of renewable energy in communities across the country;
• We must stimulate rural economies by encouraging natural resource restoration and conservation and by promoting recreational uses like hunting, fishing and other activities that create jobs;
• And we must continue to strengthen farm income by investing in critical research to ensure our farmers remain world leaders in providing a reliable, cheap, safe and abundant food supply.
Somehow, it was not encouraging. Those are all long-term goals requiring serious political commitment and a lot of money, and the feds have neither. Political commitment is a wind-blown thing that scuttles along behind the most recent vote and we all know what the national bank account looks like.
The political realities in this country have been painfully clear from the earliest days of our founding fathers. George Washington and his band of revolutionary brothers were some of the richest men in the new world. The taxes they fought not to pay were pounds sterling taken directly from their well-lined pockets by an English monarch anxious to finance the expansion of his empire.
The hoary old phrase “Follow the money” was probably coined to describe the politics of America. To be fair, it also describes the politics of South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the countries of the Pacific basin. Every country in every continent with the possible exception of Antarctica is powered by that rule.
So now we’re looking at an aging, declining population living so close to the poverty line that they can hit it with a fresh cow chip. Most have just a little bit of money and a scant handful of votes. And, as time goes by, it will become a case of less money and fewer votes. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Sure, you can expect the odd Midwestern politician to make all the right noises from time-to-time with encouraging speeches filled with mostly hollow promises for a better day. It’s in their best interest to keep the home folk comforted. But the power is shifting to the growing urban centers, loaded with big voting blocks and big money. With it, of course, come people with curious ideas about the place of modern agriculture – ideas that have little to do with the realities of making a living on a ranch or a farm.
People who have never been east of the Hudson will see those sad and disgusting undercover videos made by the likes of HSUS agents and their kin and think that’s the way it is in the ‘fly over’ country. They’ll demand the kind of ‘changes’ in animal welfare that will make animal agriculture increasing difficult and expensive. They’ll demand strict controls over the use of farm fertilizers, all the while dosing their quarter acre lawns with enough to do a couple of acres of corn in the middle of Iowa. Without the time or the inclination to look deeper into those issues, they’ll buy what they’re offered by ‘experts,’ many of whom are direct descendants of 19th century snake oil salesmen.
Modern agriculture is big business. It has to be in order to feed a rapidly growing world population. Modern agriculture is also an international business. A Brazilian company runs the world’s largest cattle business. An American pork processor is a major player in the European Union. Thailand is home to a large, prosperous and influential poultry business. Most of the major food processors, of course, have been international in scope for decades.
It means production decisions will be increasingly cost-driven and the keepers of the corporate purse are free to look anywhere in the world for least-cost production sites. Can hogs be raised cheaper in China? Can cattle be finished with less cash in South America? Will soybeans be a bumper crop in Brazil? Will corn be more than knee high before the Fourth on the Russian Steppes? When a man enjoying a caprihina in Sao Paulo is making a decision on where to raise his cattle for maximum profit, you can be sure he’s not worrying about the meager bank accounts of a handful of ranchers in the Texas panhandle.
A line in Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ says it all: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Today, the breezes are stiffening and they’re not likely to become a gentle wind at the back of rural America. As it loses population and money, it loses political influence in this country and around the world.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Cattlenetwork.com and Agnetwork.com.
What Tom Vilsack said about his tour of rural America: