Rural Revitalization

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<i>This speech was given before the Joint Agricultural Policy Listening and Advocacy Session in Ames, Iowa on August 24, 2001 by Jon Bailey, Rural Research and Analysis Program Director at the Center for Rural Affairs.</i>
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To place the need for a public policy that will revitalize rural communities in context, I want to give you a few numbers:
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<li>Based on 1999 data concerning per capita income, 243 of the 250 poorest counties in the nation are rural counties. </li>
<li>Of the 20 poorest counties in the nation, 11 – over half – are in the Dakotas and Nebraska, including four reservation counties. The other seven are agriculturally dependent counties in the "bread basket of America." </li>
<li>Of the 20 poorest counties, the two poorest and three of the poorest five are in Nebraska. </li>
<li>Compared to metropolitan areas of this region, rural poverty rates are 50% higher </li>
<li>Nationally, rural areas lag behind in many economic indicators – higher poverty rates, lower real per capita income, lower real earnings per job. </li>
<li>27% of the rural wage and salary workforce earn less than the poverty threshold for a family of four, nearly twice the urban rate. And despite growing education achievement in rural areas, this level is growing. </li>
<li>Many rural areas are depopulating – from 1995 to 1999 nearly 50% more counties lost population than in the first half of the 1990s. In North Dakota, some areas have lower populations now than when the frontier was officially closed in the 1890s. In Nebraska, nearly half of rural counties gained population in the 1980s; in the 1990s, all but two rural counties lost population. </li>
<li>Earlier this week, the University of Nebraska released part of its 2001 Rural Poll, the largest poll in the nation devoted to rural residents, and found the highest level in the 6 years of the poll of negativity about current and future economic situations among rural individuals and families; some of the the highest levels in the history of the poll about powerlessness of people to control their lives; only 35% of rural Nebaskans have money left over at the end of each month; 62% of rural Nebraskans feel their income has not kept up with the cost of living; nearly one-quarter of rural Nebraskans have to work extra jobs, can’t pay their full utility bills or their medical cost; and one-third are unable to save toward retirement. </li>
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<p>I think it goes without saying that if these trends – and trends we’ve heard about in agriculture -- continue in another generation there will be little left of family farming and ranching and rural communities. In short, we face some fundamental social issues as they relate to rural communities – issues about what type of communities we want to pass to the next generation, questions about fairness for those who raise and process our food, questions of social justice for a still significant portion of our population.
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<p>While rural communities are more than farms and ranches, agriculture must be a cornerstone of any revitalization of rural communities. The relationship between rural communities and the farms and ranches that surround them dictate that. And when we consider the fundamental issues of fairness, stewardship and social justice as they apply to rural communities, we would do well to remember the famous research done by Dean MacCannell in California and replicated by others concerning the relationship between farm size and the social and economic circumstances of nearby communities. This research has found that communities surrounded by farms that larger than can be operated by a family unit have a bi-modal income distribution, with a few wealthy elites, a majority of poor laborers and virtually no middle class, with increased crime and a fractured family structure.
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<p>My friends, that is what is happening in many communities of our region, and it is not progress. It is social decay.
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<p>What can be done to halt the decay? I want to share with you some strategies we think are needed.
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<p>We must reverse the decline in the farm and ranch share of the food system profit. Dr. Stewart Smith of the University of Maine and the former chief economist of the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress estimates that at current trends the farm and ranch share of the food system profit will reach zero by 2030. Corporate control of the food system – purchased inputs, processing, additives, advertising, retailing – and the increasing disconnection between the farmer or rancher and the commodities they producing are sucking vast amounts of income and economic well being out of rural communities. We must begin to focus on methods that allow farmers and ranchers to build on their strengths – management and labor – in ways to add value to their products.
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<p>We must promote and encourage entrepreneurship. The study Trampled Dreams we published in 2000 found that for all states in this region, nearly all job growth in rural, agriculturally-dependent communities during the late 1980s to late 1990s was in non-farm self-employment or small business. I think this represents the entrepreneurial character that still exists in the region, a character that remains from the days of homesteading and settlement. Yet we do virtually nothing through our public policy for this type of economic development that actually works in rural communities. An example from Nebraska, that actually has one of the best state-wide small business development policies in the nation, demonstrates this point. Last year the state spent about $500,000 for the development of small and micro- businesses; they also spent nearly $176 million in tax breaks and tax avoidances for industrial and corporate development, none of which went to the smallest rural communities in the state. That disparity is universal nationwide. We should begin to fashion a public policy that recognizes the crucial role that entrepreneurship plays in rural communities. We believe that ACRE – the Agricultural Community Revitalization and Enterprise Initiative – will provide the needed resources and commitment in the Farm Bill to help reverse this policy bias.
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<p>Cultivate a new generation of agricultural entrepreneurs through a variety of programs that help to remove barriers for those wishing to enter farming or ranching. Training and technical assistance for beginners, extension programs targeted to beginners, and changes in credit, risk management, conservation and cooperative development programs can all help cultivate these new farming and ranching entrepreneurs. We should work to develop their skills to begin to tap high value markets and retain more of the contents of the economic bucket in rural communities. We also believe that, as recommended by the Time to Act report of the National Small Farm Commission, the Farm Bill should include a Small Farm Entrepreneurial Development Initiative that will provide training and technical assistance to agricultural entrepreneurs.
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<p>We should always fight the bias against bigness. Whether it be in agriculture, schools, banking, businesses or even churches – the institutions that sustain the economic, social and spiritual lives of rural communities – all are under constant pressure of consolidation. We must be strong and firm with our policymakers in saying "Bigger is not always better." We must always be prepared to say that small schools have advantages for children that evaporate when a school becomes bigger; that the small businesses of our rural towns are important and necessary; that corporate consolidation of rural banks is not a good thing for rural communities; and that family farmers and ranchers are still needed on the land. We must also do our part – support our schools, patronize our local businesses, assist our local farmers and ranchers.
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<p>Finally, and a crucial first step, our society must develop a philosophy of sustaining rural communities. Such a philosophy recognizes rural communities are important, are a significant part of this nation and are worthy of policies that enhance the long-term well being of the people who live there. One policy that demonstrates this philosophy would a "21st Century Homestead Act," using tax and businesses incentives that have been used to encourage business development and repopulation in urban areas for the same purposes in rural areas.
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<p>Ultimately, through citizen action, we must create progress that benefits the people of rural America and offers a future to its communities, a future based on responsibility, on conscience, on stewardship and on fairness; a future where ownership and control are widely distributed and in the hands of those who work; and a future that provides genuine opportunity for all – no matter their place of residence or the modesty of their origins.
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<p>These are the values upon which our nation and our region were founded. With these values in mind we must look upon our troubled farms, ranches and communities and dream of what they can – what they must – become in the future. We must rekindle in ourselves and in our fellow citizens the pioneer spirit of hope and perseverance in a time of widespread hopelessness and resignation.
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<p>I leave you with a quote from the book Old Jules, written by the beloved Nebraska Sandhills author Marie Sandoz about her father, Sandhills pioneer Jules Sandoz. On his deathbed Jules said: "The whole damn sandhills is deserted. The cattlemen are broke, the settlers about gone. I got to start all over – ship in a lot of good farmers in the spring, build up – build – build." My friends, like Jules Sandoz, we have to fight and fight hard for that which is right, and we have to build up – build a future for rural America that reflects our highest values.
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<p>For more information, contact Jon Bailey at the Center for Rural Affairs, <a href="mailto:jonb@cfra.org">jonb@cfra.org</a>.
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