Time to “Get Real” with Washington

“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” said Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack in a recent speech. “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.”

The secretary made some valid points. But we think it goes both ways. It’s also time for rural folks to have an adult conversation with those who are supposed to represent them. The politics of Washington are also becoming less and less relevant to our real problems.

Secretary Vilsack is right in suggesting a proactive approach that attracts young people to rural America. He is right when he says the opposite approach—fighting an imaginary proposal to regulate farm dust—is a poor use of our energy.

We appreciate the secretary’s work to beef up support for organic farming, which expands opportunities for smaller farms. And we support his efforts for local foods, though the benefits are limited in the most rural parts of America far from metropolitan markets.

But in many respects the debate in Washington is missing the real issues in rural America. The big farm bill fight in Washington is over the exact form of farm payment. But the perfect program won’t help rural America if we don’t have family farmers left to use it. And as long as Washington continues to provide unlimited farm and crop insurance subsidies to the biggest farms, it will keep subsidizing mega farms to drive their neighbors out of business.>

That is the farm issue that matters most. It will shape farm life and farm communities for generations to come. President Obama won the pivotal 2008 Iowa caucuses in part by promising to cap mega farm subsidies. But the administration, like most elected officials, now rarely addresses the issue. Until we get that right, we’ll keep losing family farms and bleeding the lifeblood out of rural communities.

Our small towns are also fighting for their lives. There is real hope. There are promising entrepreneurial opportunities that work in small towns. As the secretary rightly stresses, broadband provides small rural enterprises new opportunities to sell to national and international markets.

But federal investments in rural business and community developing are shrinking – falling by half over the last decade (inflation adjusted). We have to invest in our future, if we are going to have a future.

But you rarely hear a peep about the issue in the farm bill debate. It’s time for the debate in Washington to get relevant to the challenges confronting rural people working to create a future in family farming and small communities.