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Is rural America becoming less relevant?
For many Americans, the contributions of the rural population goes unappreciated
Only 16 percent of Americans reside in rural America. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, 90 percent of the people in this country were connected in some way to rural America.
January 03, 2013
The relevancy of the continuation of the 2008 Farm Bill might have been lost on approximately 85 percent of Americans on Jan. 1, 2013.
According to spokesperson for Congressman Greg Walden, Andrew Malcom, the continuation of the 2008 Farm Bill was passed by the Senate and the House on Jan. 1, 2013, and is on its way to have President Barack Obama sign it into law.
“It was part of the larger tax plan that passed yesterday,” said Malcom on Wednesday. “It’s certainly good news for Oregon’s farmers.”
In spite of the news, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently commented during a speech on Dec. 6, 2012 in Washington that rural America is becoming less and less relevant.
At the 2012 Farm Journal Forum, Vilsack said that rural America’s assets such as energy, America’s food supply, and recreation areas are increasingly being overlooked in more urban areas in the United States as the population has become more concentrated in these areas.
“We have to be strategic about the fights that we pick, because the fights we often pick are misinterpreted in some corners,” commented Vilsack. “Sixteen percent of America's population lives in Rural America. That means, in essence, 16 percent of the elected Representatives represent Rural America; 84 percent don’t.
“Ten years ago, how many people in this country lived in Rural America? It was more than 16 percent. Twenty years ago, how many? Thirty years ago? Forty years ago? Fifty years ago? A hundred years ago? A hundred and fifty years ago, when this Department was formed? Ninety percent of the people in this country were connected in some way to Rural America. Today it’s 16 percent, and it keeps on getting older, and it keeps on reducing.”
Vilsack added that there needs to be a proactive message, not a reactive message.
“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’re competing against the world now and opportunities everywhere,” said Vilsack. “When I was growing up a kid in Pittsburgh, you know, maybe I’d end up in Iowa, but it never occurred to me that I could end up in one of the foreign countries in all of the continents of the world, never even occurred to me. Young people today have all of these opportunities, and we expect them and want them to live and work and raise their families and keep the farm or start a business in Rural America, but we have a reactive message; we don’t have a proactive message?”
Crook County Extension Agent Staff Chair Tim Deboodt said that in response to the comment about America’s assets being overlooked — farmers feed folks to a ratio of 1 to 155 individuals worldwide and U.S. agriculture employs more than 24 million American workers — 17 percent of the total U.S. work force.
“They continue to produce a safe and more-than-adequate food supply, not only to the United States, but to the world,” said Deboodt.
He agreed with Vilsack in that agriculture in rural America needs to do a better job of marketing themselves and the benefits they provide to land, water, and the citizens of the U.S.
“Agriculture probably doesn’t do that as well as they could as an industry,” said Deboodt.
He added that some segments of the industry do a good job, like “California Dairy Industry-Happy Cows, Happy Cheese.”
He said that in Oregon, there are more than 200 agricultural crops being grown. He said that it would be difficult to have a single voice to speak for all these general topics, but there is a value in agriculture as an industry sharing its story. He gave the example of “Ag in the classroom,” which is an educational effort to get agricultural topics into grade schools, primarily grades three through five.
Deboodt went on to say that the Farm Bill is made up of 70 percent food and nutrition programs and only 30 percent involves actual agricultural production. Vilsack said that the reason there isn’t an updated Farm Bill isn’t just the differences of policy.
“It’s the fact that the 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,” commented Vilsack in his December speech.
“It’s all about politics,” countered Deboodt. “It’s about the cost of the programs, the structure of the programs, and where the money goes. Congressional representatives from states heavily impacted by the various sections of the Bill do a very good job of representing their constituents.”
He said that some of the stumbling blocks have some impact on agriculture in Oregon, but many of Oregon’s crops aren’t covered in the Farm Bill.
In regards to the passage of the Food, Farm, and Jobs Bill on Jan. 1, Vilsack commented, “I am pleased that Congress passed needed middle class tax relief and continued unemployment insurance protection for 2 million unemployed Americans. However, while I am relieved that the agreement reached prevents a spike in the price of dairy and other commodities, I am disappointed Congress has been unable to pass a multi-year reauthorization of the Food, Farm and Jobs bill to give rural America the long-term certainty they need and deserve. I will continue to work with Congress to encourage passage of a reauthorized bill that includes a strong and defensible safety net for producers, expanded rural economic opportunity in the new bio-based economy, significant support for conserving our natural resources, increased commitment to important research, and support for safe and nutritious food for all Americans. I look forward to continuing the effort to get this critical work done.”