Pittz, of Missouri Valley, Iowa, is a sixth-generation family farmer and member of the Farm Bureau. Hassebrook, of Lyons, Neb., is executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs.
“It’s time for us to have adult conversation with folks in rural America,” says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “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.”
Secretary Vilsack makes a valid point. We need to talk with our friends and neighbors about the stark challenges confronting our communities. But it goes both ways. It’s also time for rural folks to have an adult conversation with those who represent them, because the politics of Washington are becoming less relevant to the challenges facing rural America.
Our small communities are fighting for their lives, but there is real hope for a better future. There are promising entrepreneurial opportunities to establish a new generation of family farms and small businesses — to turn our challenges into opportunities. But we need proactive policies that create a supportive climate for small enterprise in rural America.
Start-up capital and access to professional expertise for small business are in short supply. And federal investment in overcoming these barriers and revitalizing rural communities is shrinking. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development funding has been cut in half over the last decade. If we don’t invest in our future, we won’t have a future.
But that is not a congressional priority. The House Agriculture Committee developed a farm bill this year that would invest only one-third of the amount invested by prior farm bills in rural development. Critical investments that shape our future for generations take deep cuts, while subsidies to the rich and powerful remain unchecked.
This is personal to me (Andrew Pittz). Our six-generation family farm sits at the fork of a dirt and gravel road, just north of Missouri Valley, Iowa. I traveled an hour and a half every day by bus to get to elementary school. Our farm was cut off from mail service because of low population.
My family’s roots are deep. My grandfather drove cattle from our farm to the Omaha Stockyards many years ago and served on the county’s first conservation board. My great uncle ran the general store on Mondamin’s once bustling Main Street. And nearly two decades ago, my parents reintroduced the native but once endangered aronia berry.
The aronia berry is a natural, antioxidant-rich fruit that also conserves our precious soil in the Loess Hills of western Iowa and eastern Nebraska — one of the rarest geological formations in the world. We planted 207 of the last cultivated aronia berry plants in the United States and are now selling their fruits to Fortune 500 companies and Main Street shops.
Over the past three years, our family farm has grown from two retail accounts to one of the top 51 companies shaping the natural and organic industry, a multibillion-dollar category. As our market grew beyond what our family farm could produce, we did what rural folks do — we reached out to our neighbors. Today, more than 200 farmers are part of our growers’ network. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad declared September “Aronia Berry Month” in recognition of its value to the heartland.
My family is deeply invested in sustaining our rural way of life. We take a “century view” that spans not just years but generations. Like most other farmers, we hope that our grandchildren will have the opportunity to cultivate the land of our grandparents. We are driven by a vision of sustainability — economic, social and environmental — that provides a template for growth across rural America.
We know it. We’ve lived it. That farm that didn’t receive mail? We are now preferred business partners with the United States Postal Service.
Secretary Vilsack has invited us to a conversation about our future. It’s up to us in rural America to take him up on his offer. If we are willing to engage and are open to hearing the diversity of voices, we can lead our communities toward an entrepreneurial economy built to compete in the 21st century.