The State of Rural America

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This speech was presented at the Center's Annual Meeting on November 10, 2001, in Sioux City, Iowa by by Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs.</i>
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This year the work of the Center goes forward in the midst of a profound national crisis. America has come under attack.
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That has fundamentally changed the context in which we work. For most of the life of the Center for Rural Affairs, the people of America have lived their lives and made decisions under the assumption that we are immune from the worst travails and insecurities visited upon much of the world.
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<p align="left">But now we know we are not immune from those insecurities and perhaps this time of crisis can also be a time of reflection that propels use into a new era and new thinking about what is important and the ultimate aims of our national life.
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<p align="left">In the book <i>The Fourth Turning</i>, historians Neil Howe and William Strauss write of recurring cycles throughout American history. They write of periods of spiritual renewal, times of disintegration of common purpose, periods of crisis, and periods of renewal.
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<p align="left">They argue that we've been in one of those recurring periods of unraveling - troubled eras in which individualism triumphs over crumbling institutions, and society is overwhelmed by self-indulgence, division, bickering, and loss of common purpose. Throughout history these eras have typically gone on for a couple of decades until the nation is confronted by crisis, forcing unraveling to give way to a new period common purpose and fundamental reform.
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<p align="left">In 1997, they wrote that we were about due to turn the corner toward a time of unity and reform, but waiting for a crisis to catalyze it.
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<p align="left">We now have that crisis.
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<p align="left">Crisis and hard times create change because they forces us to reexamine and make choices about what kind of nation we want to be, what kind of communities we want to live in, and what future we want for our children and grandchildren. Perhaps most important, times of crisis force us to decide whether we are willing to sacrifice and engage in the struggle to create change. Crisis forces us to make choices that test our character.
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<p align="left">Rural America has known crisis for some time. We have suffered chronic family farm and ranch decline, shrinking communities, and the growing gap between the haves and have-nots.
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<p align="left">So in rural America - as in all of America - it is a time to engage the struggle and speak boldly to advance our values.
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<p align="left">It is a time to remind our fellow Americans that the good life does not lie in accumulating goods or pursuing selfish interest, but rather in being part of strong communities and a just nation and world.
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<p align="left">Because if society and our community are sinking into poverty and decline, even as we prosper, we too will suffer the affects in social and community breakdown, declining public schools, and crime.
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<p align="left">Our true interest is tied to the common good.
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<p align="left">It is a time to remind our fellow Americans that we cannot build strength by sacrificing fairness. Our communities and our nation will be truly strong and secure only when all share a stake in them and assume responsibility for their future.
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<p align="left">It is a time to remind our fellow Americans and our neighbors that community matters. The bonds we form over time with the people and land of a place are worth preserving and a valuable foundation on which to build.
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<p align="left">It is time to remind our fellow Americans, as farmers and ranchers know, that we cannot measure success by what we consume in our lives but rather by what we leave to the next generation. We have an obligation to leave the land and water to the next generation at least as well as we find it.
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<p align="left">And we must remind our fellow Americans, as the leaders of our rural churches and schools know, that our communities and nation can be strong only if each of us assumes responsibility for their care and development.
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<p align="left">That really is the key to creating a better future and to shaping history. As University of Nebraska sociologist John Allen has reminded us, the history of social change is a history of people deciding they do not like the direction things are moving - and then taking steps to change it. It has happened over and over throughout history.
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<p align="left">That is what the Center and the thousands who join with us have always been about. At a time when many have given up, together we've followed the words of the Apostle Paul: "Proclaim the message. Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable."
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<p align="left">We've known unfavorable times, but yet we've been persistent. And something is changing.
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<p align="left">As the population of rural America shrinks, the Center's support continues to grow. And when you read the polls you find that we are no longer a lonely voice in the wilderness. For example, a recent 27-state poll of farmers found that 81 percent support targeting farm program payments to small farms.
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<p align="left">That does not mean our job will become easy. But we are making progress.&nbsp;
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<p align="left">As this is being written we have won new funding and new approaches that support family farms and ranches and rural community development in the Senate farm bill, including $100 million for cooperative, small business, and beginning farmer and rancher development. It invests more in rewarding good stewardship by environmentally responsible farmers and ranchers.
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<p align="left">In the state legislature we've passed major rural development initiatives in two of the last three years. We've helped defend rural schools from deep cuts in the wake of the 2001 state budget crisis. And for 19 years we've held at bay the corporate interests that would repeal Initiative 300.
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<p align="left">We've help nearly 2,000 rural small businesses get started or thrive. And recently, we launched a new Women's Business Center to serve all of Nebraska with funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
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<p align="left">Our Project HOPE is working in nine communities in Cedar and Knox counties to develop new rural leadership and explore new approaches to rural development based on family farming and ranching, small business, and environmental stewardship.
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<p align="left">Together with the University of Nebraska, we are working with 14 groups of family farmers and ranchers across the state exploring new approaches to economic vitality. Cooperatives like North Star Neighbors and Main Bow Meats have accomplished several fold increases in sales of natural family farm meats and other products at premium prices.
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<p align="left">We are particularly excited as we explore creation of a new regional cooperative to link environmentally responsible family farmers and ranchers with consumers who want what they have to offer. The potential is great. Major retailers are looking for a consistent supply of high quality natural meats. Right now, they don't know where to get it. But we aim to build the cooperative that can give it to them and capture premium prices for family farmers and ranchers.
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<p align="left">As we move forward on this and other initiatives, our challenge is in the words of the Apostle Paul to "be persistent".
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<p align="left">To persist, we must remember that history is not a linear trend. It is a series of cycles. And regardless of how unfavorable or difficult the times have seemed, they too will pass because a shift is taking place in the hearts and minds of America.
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<p align="left">We can and must be a part of shaping the next cycle. It will be difficult struggle that requires sacrifice. But as the pioneers knew, great things are always built on struggle and sacrifice. In 1923, the great Nebraska novelist Willa Cather wrote:
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<p align="left"><i>The splendid story of the pioneers is finished, and new story worthy to take its place has yet begun. The generation that subdued the wild land and broke up the virgin prairie is passing, but it is still there, a group of rugged figures in the background, which inspire respect, compel admiration. With these old men and women, the attainment of material prosperity was a moral victory, because it was wrung from hard conditions, was the result of struggle that tested character.</i>
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<p align="left">Like our ancestors who settled the prairies around us and built our communities, we must engage in struggle that tests our character. We must not shy from fighting for that which is right - even when many turn from the truth.
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<p align="left">As Willa Cather noted even 80 years ago - the belief that smug success and easy money are the real aims of human life had settled down over our prairies. But it had not - she stressed - hardened into molds and crusts.
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<p align="left">So let us be the generation that sweeps away the dust of materialism and selfishness, that meets the test of character and writes a new story for rural America worthy of taking its place along side the story of pioneers - a story of fairness and justice; a story of genuine opportunity for all; and a story of stewardship and responsibility.
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<p align="left"><font face="Arial" size="2">For more information, contact Chuck Hassebrook, Executive Director of the Center, <a href="mailto:chuckh@cfra.org"><u>chuckh@cfra.org</u></a>. </font>
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