When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told farm leaders that rural America is becoming less relevant to the nation’s politics and must reverse that trend, he raised some eyebrows. But there are some important facts that can’t be brushed aside in such a discussion.
While the number of rural residents is in decline, the economic impact of agriculture is growing.
Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, voiced disappointment over political squabbling in the ag sector. He criticized farmers who have embraced what he called wedge issues, such as regulation. He said rural Americans should pick their political fights more carefully. He cited the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill.
And he said a shrinking rural population is “becoming less and less relevant.”
Far more than mere electoral clout is involved in this equation. It’s obvious that in a one-person, one-vote democracy, areas with declining population will see their direct political influence fall.
And such remarks take the focus off this important point: The economic relevance of rural America is enormous and growing, irrespective of shrinking population and vote totals.
Whether it is the production of food, fiber, renewable energy or booming exports, farmers’ influence cannot be ignored.
American farmers feed not just their fellow Americans but people around the world.
Domestically produced energy, particularly renewable production, that is not dependent on the whims of foreign powers is of ever-increasing importance. And agricultural exports are a significant factor in a prosperous U.S. economy.
Regarding the latter, in 2011 Nebraska businesses and agricultural operations exported some $7.6 billion in goods and services, an increase of nearly one-third over the year before. Nine of the top 10 exports were agriculture-related. The state of Iowa exported $13.3 billion in products and services last year. Naysayers disregard those facts at their peril.
Then, too, “irrelevant” isn’t a word that can be associated with the production of ethanol, a renewable alternative fuel. In that area, Iowa ranks first and Nebraska second in the nation. Ethanol comes from Nebraska- and Iowa-grown corn, is processed in Nebraska and Iowa distillation plants and is used as fuel both in this country and countries that import it from U.S. sources.
To be fair, the agriculture secretary did note that rural America’s biggest assets — food, recreational areas and energy — can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the U.S. population shifts more to cities and suburbs. And his comment that “we need a proactive message (for rural America), not a reactive message” was fine as far as it went.
That proactive message, which needs to be spread around Washington, the nation and beyond, is exactly the same as what makes rural America so relevant: Food, fiber, renewable energy and exports to the world. Far too few East and West Coasters understand the fundamental realities of food production and their heavy dependence on what happens in the Midwest.
Vilsack did acknowledge some of that: “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.”
It’s not that rural America is irrelevant. It’s that too much of urban America doesn’t understand just how well rural America is working.
It is Vilsack’s job to make sure that story is heard and understood.