Vilsack Says Rural America is “Less Relevant.” Is He Right?

Over the weekend, I read some comments from current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (the former Governor of Iowa)  about the state of rural America that gave me pause. Sure, there is an inflammatory quality to his comment that rural America is becoming “less relevant”, and arguments abound that could refute such an indictment. Yet on the surface, …

  1. Amy Schley

    Family farms will go the way of mom-and-pop shops.  Do you think the government should pay mom-and-pops to not sell stuff so as not to flood the market with cheap gimcrackery?

    Just think, if we actually did “squeeze out the voices of those so vital to maintaining our food supply” maybe we wouldn’t have government regulations that force us to destroy a quarter of our corn crop to turn into less efficient gasoline, raising gas and food prices for us all.  Maybe we wouldn’t have to pay for their crop insurance that actually lets them make more money when their crops fail that what they would have had the harvest come in. (Insurance pays out at the market price at the time of harvest, so the less that comes in for harvest, the higher the price and the larger the check for what was lost.)

    Just think, without things like government licenses for peanut farmers, Jimmy Carter couldn’t have used his peanut farming license climb to the Presidency.

  2. Jim Chase

    Amy, as I wrote, I’m not a fan of subsidies.  But I also think it is foolish to believe that government regulation of agriculture will disappear with the family farm.  In fact, it will only increase as agribusiness takes over.  There is danger here in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  The ethanol argument is valid, to be sure, but if the end result is to run off a largely reliable conservative block, those red states may not end up so red.  Maybe the family farm will go the way of mom and pops.  The question is, can rural America remain reliably conservative and influential, or is the battle lost to the cities?

  3. Foxfier

    The small, family-run farms (and ranches) I’m familiar with don’t take subsidies; they go to either hobby farms run by trust fund kids or businesses that span multiple areas.  Some of those businesses are pretty nice, but even “family farms” like the ranch my folks manage– the ag side is owned by one guy, the land is owned by several more– it’s not worth it to try for gov’t help unless you have to. (Such as for buying the big automated water lines– cuts a few regulations if you let them study the erosion effects.  Which means you keep track of everything and deliver it every so often, if anyone is at the office.)

  4. Amy Schley

    A largely reliable voting block that only exists because of government subsidies — why is that okay when they’re white farmers but not black ghetto-dwellers? I thought the conservatives didn’t believe in buying votes.

    No, government regulation won’t go away with more agribusiness and fewer family farms.  It will only get worse, as agribusiness will use their power to get more onerous regulations that only they can comply with.  But turning farmers into welfare kings and queens isn’t solving that problem either.

    The battle for influence may not be in rural areas, but so what? Let the Republican suburbs and Democrat cities battle it out.

  5. Jim Chase
    Amy Schley: A largely reliable voting block that only exists because of government subsidies — why is that okay when they’re white farmers but not black ghetto-dwellers? I thought the conservatives didn’t believe in buying votes.

    I’m not certain how you infer that I believe in buying votes in this instance, as you seem to be saying.  I’ve already stated that I’m generally opposed to subsidies.  My question is not should we/shouldn’t we, but rather what happens when those subsidies do fall to fiscal pressures.  How will the dynamic change, and how do we keep those states red? 

    I’m also not so certain that voting block exists purely because of subsidies, as you suggest.  I for one am not ready to write off rural America politically or culturally.  If rural states don’t matter, then we might as well dump the Electoral College.  And that would be a mistake.

  6. Becky53

    What frustrated me about that article was it was nothing more than a Press Release quoted in its entirety, as though it were fact. 

    And!  The article had no responses from anyone representative of the Rural.

    Why did the newspapers who printed this dreck, print it at all without any attempt to cull out balance?

  7. Foxfier
    Becky53:

    Why did the newspapers who printed this dreck, print it at all without any attempt to cull out balance? · 0 minutes ago

    ….Because rural folks aren’t likely to impulse buy a paper?

  8. Jim Chase
    Becky53: What frustrated me about that article was it was nothing more than a Press Release quoted in its entirety, as though it were fact. 

    And!  The article had no responses from anyone representative of the Rural.

    Why did the newspapers who printed this dreck, print it at all without any attempt to cull out balance? · 9 minutes ago

    The article is indeed lacking.  Unfortunately, I’m not seeing a whole lot of talk about it on the blogosphere either.  I would love to see something more comprehensive, but I haven’t found it yet.

  9. Becky53

    Interesting thought – editors of newspapers are journalistically responsible only when they think they might lose or incite a customer.  Or, are they priming the pump — is this a hint at the next war Dear Leader is waging on rural dwellers? 

    Foxfier

    Becky53:

    Why did the newspapers who printed this dreck, print it at all without any attempt to cull out balance? · 0 minutes ago

    ….Because rural folks aren’t likely to impulse buy a paper? · 11 minutes ago

  10. Mendel

    America has always had a bias toward rural life.  We were founded primarily as an agrarian society, and our institutions reflect that: both the Senate and (to a lesser extent) the Electoral College give extra weight to rural states. What amazes me is how strong that spirit has remained long after the economic ship sailed on agriculture. 

    The question is not whether rural America has become less relevant – it most certainly has.  The question is whether, by putting their thumbs on the agrarian side of the scale, our Founders might have inadvertently created a system of balances which benefits us all. 

    In other words, giving hicks in North Dakota a veto over the coastal (sub-)urbanites might add value to our political system above and beyond the economic contribution of rural states.  I’m not convinced, but it’s worth pondering.

  11. Mendel
    Anna M.:

    subsidies of any substantial amount go to agribusinesses and a few hobby farmers with the right connections.

    Successful small farmers (yes, they exist) are incredibly hard workers who are also talented businessmen.

    I think we would all agree that subsidies do little more than favor big agribusiness over smaller farmers, who can still add a great deal of value into the economy.

    But even without those subsidies, agriculture will not regain the prominence which it once held in our society.  The question is, should we strive to support rural culture and its values despite this trend, or should we succomb to market inevitabilities and let the rural influence in national politics slowly disappear?

    My instinct is usually to let the market run its course, but giving rural voters a veto in national politics has certainly served us well over the centuries.

    As an aside, my “hicks in ND” comment was supposed to be a parody of how coastal elites view them – not my personal opinion.  Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

  12. Jim Chase
    Mendel

    But even without those subsidies, agriculture will not regain the prominence which it once held in our society.  The question is, should we strive to support rural culture and its values despite this trend, or should we succomb to market inevitabilities and let the rural influence in national politics slowly disappear?

    My instinct is usually to let the market run its course, but giving rural voters a veto in national politics has certainly served us well over the centuries.

    This gets to the core of what I was trying to address with this post.  Anna’s point about changes to laws surrounding the estate/inheritance tax are well taken.

    My preference is to allow market forces to work.  Yet it is painfully obvious that the squeeze is being put on producers of all types throughout our economy.  This question of relevance, though, harkens to the vital importance of maintaining a federalist mindset.  For rural states to maintain influence in national politics, they must maintain some level of independence in order to wield that influence. 

    So in a sense, Vilsack may be right – rural America may need to look at things differently in order to preserve its voice.

  13. FarmerDan

    I started farming several years ago and was immediately surprised at the effort local government agencies  expend trying to give me payments for this and that. I have finally got shed of all that, (I think,I just got a call Friday) but still compete with all those who do take the checks. The justification  is, “Everybody else is doing it” even with their Romney signs in the yard.  

    Ethanol mandates have increased the rent per acre of so-so farmland 800% in the past five years in this neighborhood.  My feed costs have more than doubled because corn prices drive bean prices drive hay prices etc.

    The co-op I sell milk through endorsed the Democrat Senator because she promises more goodies. The Farm Bureau endorsed the same.

      USDA’s policies are successfully depopulating the countryside. When their policies cause many of my neighbors to quit farming and rent their land to the  ”family farmer” from 10 miles away who is farming 35,000 acres and pays them more rent than I could ever hope to, something is wrong. 

  14. Foxfier
    Becky53: Foxfier — it would be interesting to hear their opinion of this new attack on them by our WH — that they are not relevant.  Talk about biting the hand the feeds you! · 5 hours ago

    They’ve been working to drive farmers and ranchers out of business for years, usually with environmental regulations or animal “welfare” laws.  (Generally backed by the big companies, which can easily apply the new regulations.)

    My folks are currently working their tails off to keep the range permits on the forest– the ranch pays the gov’t for permission to build or upkeep fences and put cattle out for a few weeks in each place, under tight supervision, with those who want to cause problems cutting the fence or planting hair from protected species. 

    My daydream is that the fiscal cliff will make them want more money coming in from back-woods areas, so they’ll let ranchers (whose animals make grassy areas more healthy when done properly) and loggers (who can keep forest fires from being horrific) back on to the public lands… or sell them off in large part…. 

  15. Foxfier

    Background: my mom was in Cattle Women so long ago that it was Cow Belles. *Grin* I grew up with all sorts of interesting information on how much ag does for the country, from gummy worms being a beef byproduct to flexible plastic

    It’s not new that folks disrespect those they depend on.  More than once, mom ran into high school kids that thought milk comes from the store, not cows.  And this was in a pretty dang rural area.

  16. Anna M.
    Mendel

    My instinct is usually to let the market run its course, but giving rural voters a veto in national politics has certainly served us well over the centuries.

    As an aside, my “hicks in ND” comment was supposed to be a parody of how coastal elites view them – not my personal opinion.  Apologies if that wasn’t clear. · 5 hours ago

    Sorry about that, Mendel!  I’ve spent so much time around academics who sneer at “ignorant hicks” (and I’ve met a few urban/suburban conservatives who do as well) that it’s a sore spot for me.  Thanks for your clarification; my sense of satire/parody was temporarily knocked off kilter there.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of rural voter influence disappearing per se; rather, that influence has to find a viable location in a changing political landscape. 

    In rural central Michigan, independent farmers still have a strong influence in country gov’t/local politics; how that translates to the state (much less national) level is where adaptability and new ways of thinking will be required.  Successful independent farmers know how market forces work; they’ll grumble but adapt and survive. 

  17. Ross C

    I find the USDA one of the more odious of bureaucracies so this comes from a bad place.  I think there is little evidence that secretary Vilsack’s pronouncement is true.

    The number of farmers has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk for a hundred years now and the USDA continues larger and more expansive than ever.  The farm lobby is so weak now that we cannot possibly get rid of the subsidies for rich sugar producers or bee keepers.  What chance is there that big changes will happen.

  18. tabula rasa

    It is certainly true that rural areas are less relevant from an electoral perspective.  There just aren’t enough conservative voters in rural areas to offset the urban liberal voters.

    People talk about the lack of open-mindedness out in rural America, but if you look at the numbers, rural areas are, comparatively speaking, models of diversity.  

    Take Pennsylvania as an example.  Philadelphia County is the inner city part of Philly.  In the presidential election, it went 85-14 for Obama and provided him with a margin of 465,000 in that county alone.  Obama won by 310,000 in PA, which means that Romney won the rest of the state.  

    But even the most rural Pennsylvania counties gave Obama between 20-35% of the vote (e.g., Potter 26%; Tioga 32%; Franklin 30%).

    For all of their talk about diversity, the liberal inner-cities are monolithically liberal: and why wouldn’t they be?  People either work for the nanny state or are wards of the nanny state in our most urbanized areas (I over-generalize).

    Yet there are apparently enough goodies out there to convince 30 percent of rural voters to jump on the nanny-state bandwagon.

    Sad.

  19. The New Clear Option
    Jim Chase

    Becky53: What frustrated me about that article was it was nothing more than a Press Release quoted in its entirety, as though it were fact. 

    And!  The article had no responses from anyone representative of the Rural.

    Why did the newspapers who printed this dreck, print it at all without any attempt to cull out balance? · 9 minutes ago

    The article is indeed lacking.  Unfortunately, I’m not seeing a whole lot of talk about it on the blogosphere either.  I would love to see something more comprehensive, but I haven’t found it yet. · 22 hours ago

    And you’re never going to see a lot of talk about it blogosphere or no, either. The message isn’t directed at the general public. Vilsack’s comments are nothing but a scolding for the losers to get with the program and get their ingrate constituents to accept their subjugation to their new, urbane (i.e. Democrat) overlords.

    His statements are a kinder, gentler version of, “We will BURY you!” It’s irritation with the ‘farm-belt leaders’ (beholden too much to their hayseed constituents, obviously) who are holding up progress toward ever more industrialized  (ergo more regulated) farming.

  20. Chris Deleon

    If you want to revive family farms here in the U.S., and the fortunes of the small family farmers in countries in, say, Central America, so they feel less inclined to leave their farms and come looking for work here, then STOP the farm subsidies and STOP artificially managing the price of staple foods on the market!

    If you want the government to do something to curb obesity rates, one thing it can do is to STOP doing.  Stop subsidizing all of the grains that go into so many of our cheap, unhealthy foods.  Stop expanding the food stamp program, which subsidizes many unhealthy foods.

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