Candidates: Where’s Your Rural Platform?

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There are enough presidential candidates to field two football teams. With all the speeches, ads, meet-and-greets, publicity stunts and general falderal, why is so little being said about rural issues? The Daily Yonder asked folks what they think the next president should be talking about to get the rural vote. Here’s what they said.


At the first National Rural Assembly in 2007, then-Senator Hillary Clinton joined by video conference and made news by saying she thought it a good idea to rename the Department of Agriculture the U.S. Department of Rural Affairs. Eight years later as the Assembly gathers again, Clinton is the one candidate who has released a rural platform document in the form of her plan for rural Iowa. The multitude of Republican candidates did not as much as mention the word “rural” in their first debate even though rural America was Mitt Romney’s best demographic in the 2012 election.

So the Daily Yonder asked teachers, farmers, artists and assorted practitioners around the country to help the candidates find their rural voice by suggesting specific policies and positions they would like to see represented in a party platform next year. This is what they said.


Anthony Flaccavento on his farm near Abingdon, Virginia. Photo by Shawn Poynter


Niel Ritchie (Minnesota), executive director, Main Street Project:

Increase our emphasis on performance-based incentives by increasing investment in the Conservation Stewardship Program, designed to help farmers and ranchers protect and improve natural resources on productive, profitable land.

Joe Schroeder (Kentucky), Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) USA, director of farm sustainability and Jackson County farmer:

We should enforce existing protections and rethink incentives for unsustainable production.

Since 2007 we have lost about 100,000 farmers, and about a third of them were beginning farmers. For the first time, the price of commodities across the board is falling below the cost of production, further distressing small and midscale farmers.

We are now at a point where the scale that supports the most farmers and farmland in America is no longer providing even a viable second income for their families and rural economies.

Protect the diversity of seeds and breeds and build on the integrity of food through labels like organic, Country of Origin Labeling, and Genetically Modified Organisms. Pursue the anti-trust evidence that plagues our food and farming system by publishing and acting on findings from the 2010 USDA antitrust hearings.  Enforce the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rules protecting poultry farmers and workers, and allow statements from previous comment periods to be entered into public record.

A Headstart student in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Francisco Guajardo, professor of educational leadership, University of Texas Pan American, Board of Directors Center for Rural Strategies (Disclosure: Rural Strategies publishes the Daily Yonder):

I think the rural education platform should be framed around community development.  Strong and healthy schools equal strong and healthy communities, and vice versa. My work for some years has been to help rural schools build place based and community based curricula so that rural teachers and students gain an understanding and appreciation for their rural hometowns. The idea here is that if they know their place, they are more likely to participate in making those places better.

  1. We need accountability systems that are friendly and flexible enough to allow rural schools to engage in place based ways of teaching and learning.
  2. Rural schools can’t really do this if they don’t have access to high speed internet and other competitive technologies; rural broadband cuts across everything, and schools are at the crossroads of everything in rural.
  3. Rural schools also suffer from an inability to recruit high quality teachers; we need a rural teacher corps. At the moment, Teach for America (TFA) is the only national group dedicated to sending bright young prospective teachers to rural communities, but their record is disastrous in terms of community development, because they attempt to “save the souls” of rural schools and as a way for TFA corps members to get to their next gig – frequently law school or medical school. A national rural teacher corps could help, if it focuses on rural folk who want to be good teachers. There’s no public investment in that at the moment.

Jeff Hawkins, executive director, Kentucky Valley Education Cooperative and team leader of a 17-county Race to the Top grant:

No matter their Zip code, every student needs and deserves access to high quality curriculum and instruction so that they may compete on a national/international level and be successful in college and career.

Access to high-speed internet connections in rural areas is one of the essential elements that will contribute to a rigorous and robust learning pathway for rural students. It will let us blend improved access with professional learning for educators and direct connections with community partners.


Volunteers rebuild houses in Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Suzanne Anarde, (Colorado), Rural (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) program vice president:

It is time that the 2016 presidential candidates realize that having an agricultural policy platform does not encompass the entire network of rural communities. Ag is an economic driver in many rural communities, but the complement to a strong ag economy are strong rural communities, with livable-wage jobs for families that support the local grocery store, schools and health care providers.  And the stabilizing factor in a strong rural community is housing.   Whether it is to a rental or a property they own, at the end of the day, small business owners, farmers, employees all go home.

David Dangler (Massachusetts), NeighborWorks director of Rural Initiatives:

Let’s reinvest in rural America’s telecommunications infrastructure to level the opportunity field for naturally entrepreneurial rural Americans.

As a rural community practitioner, access to broadband and to related technologies will be a big boost to communities and to the nonprofit networks they are created to assist.


Kids on a playground in Marion, North Carolina. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Alan Morgan (D.C.), CEO, National Rural Health Association:

Access to healthcare is one of the leading causes of health disparities. Rural healthcare access is a serious problem, with rural areas having greater percentages of uninsured and significant provider shortages.  With 57 rural hospital closures since 2010, rural healthcare access must be a presidential level concern.

+ Support the “Save Rural Hospitals Act, HR 3225” is a great start.

+ Rural enrollment in the new healthcare exchanges lags behind urban enrollment.  Rural targeted outreach is needed.

+ Medicaid expansion is necessary for rural access.

+ Full funding for rural health profession recruitment and retention programs needed.

Trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Dylan Kruse (Oregon), policy director, Sustainable Northwest:

Wildfires today present one of the most complex natural-resource-management challenges in the American West, and by dollars, one of the most expensive. This summer, the U.S. Forest Service was spending $150 million per week on fire suppression. Over the last decade, fire management activities have cost tax payers billions of dollars and now eat up more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget. The size and impacts of wildfires have also steadily grown, resulting in increased risks to communities, and loss of life and property.

Mikki Sager (North Carolina), vice president and director of Resourceful Communities:

America’s working forests provide clean water, clean air, locally sourced renewable energy, wildlife habitat, paper and building products, recreation for people and jobs for rural America.  Privately owned forests in 32 states support 2.8 million jobs and add $119 billion to the economy, according to a 2013 report prepared for the National Association of Forest Owners.

With more than 40 million acres of working forests projected to change ownership in the coming years, according the U.S. Forest Service, it will be important for resources and incentives to be made available to support ownership and management of working forests by communities, nonprofit organizations and local governments.  Keeping our forests productive will keep businesses in operation and strengthen rural economies for the future.  Policy recommendations that would help strengthen the rural forest economy include:

+ Fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund at $900 million per year to support federal and state protection of public and private forests.

+ Significantly increase funding for the USDA-Forest Service Community Forest Program to $40-50 million per year, consistent with the program’s demonstrated need, to support acquisition of community forestlands by local governments, nonprofits and tribal entities and expand the green infrastructure for local forest economies.

+ Maintain the 15% long-term capital gains for timber harvest revenue, to support private landownership of forests and related businesses.

+ Create a carbon tax to increase the competitiveness of locally sourced products and natural resources, and invest the tax revenues in a special fund that supports rural schools, healthcare and renewable energy.


An audience for a play at the Double Edge Farm in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Carlton Turner (Mississippi), musician and executive director, Alternate Roots:

In my opinion rural communities are some of the strongest producers in the country. Rural cultural producers are innovators in their craft and a driving force in the nation’s past and future. We need strong policies and locally controlled structures to strengthen production and development toward economic and community development.

Rachel Reynolds Luster (Missouri), librarian, musician, founder Oregon County Food Co-op:

First, a national effort to invest in rural youth.

Second, I would like to see a coordinated effort to build a cross-sector rural infrastructure to support the establishment and networking of rural organizations that work in cultural fields. This network should also have the flexibility to react to highly localized needs and to work across state lines to address the needs of a place or region that don’t necessarily stop at the state or county line – a sort of cultural/social Rural Electrification Administration. This way, visionary projects for rural places and people, by rural places and people would have a stronger support system


Cutting up timber in Rockcastle County, Kentucky. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Bruce Boyens (Colorado), labor lawyer, former coal miner:

Create sustainable, clean, renewable resources that will lead to livable jobs throughout rural America. Make America realize the issue is jobs and the environment, not jobs versus the environment.

Michelle Miller (New York), co-founder

I want to see increased access to agencies and regulatory bodies set up to protect workers through smarter digital platforms. Currently, basic information about OSHA regulations, wage and hour protections and the right to organize is nearly impossible for the average worker to navigate and take action on through government sites. We’ve met many workers who spent countless hours on government websites, to no avail, attempting to understand some very basic question about a potential violation of their rights. Often, the workers who are able to identify that their rights have been violated are only able to do so because they’ve made local contact with a lawyer or organizer who can help them make sense of the info.

For rural workers, who may work hundreds of miles from the nearest legal clinic or regional agency outpost, this effectively shuts down their ability to identify and take action around wage theft, misclassification, dangerous working conditions, etc. And if these same workers attempt to organize around these issues and face retaliation, there’s no easy way to file a complaint.


On the road between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Billy Altom (Arkansas), executive director, Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL):

It is important to realize that funding for transit in rural America is going backwards in some states, with money shifting to roads and other issues.  People with disabilities and the aging population are disproportionately affected by a lack of transit options. Shrinking transit options are forcing them to abandon the concept of aging in place.  We believe that human-service transportation in rural America is public transportation and should be treated as such, with increased funding and greater coordination.


Road work in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky. Photo by Shawn Poynter.


Brian Fogle (Missouri), president and CEO, Community Foundation of the Ozarks:

Rural America needs more flexible, scalable access to federal programs for rural areas.  Each new program has such high match requirements, or are so specific and complex, smaller communities and organizations simply don’t have the capacity to access them.   I know it’s self-serving, but I do think community foundations can play a role in that arena.   We are place-based and know how to get investments on the ground effectively and with accountability.  Lastly, if there was some incentive or encouragement to increase private foundation investment in rural America, that could be transformative.

Tanya Fiddler (South Dakota), executive director, Four Bands Community Fund:

One of the most important things in rural America is access to affordable capital for community economic development. This is especially true in Indian Country. The New Markets Tax Credit program at the Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund needs to be reauthorized and made permanent. When I did a panel in June called “Unlocking the Potential of Rural America” at the Clinton Global Initiative, President Clinton and I both stressed the need for New Market Tax Credits to be reauthorized… He was disappointed his colleagues in Congress let the tax credits expire. It is one of the viable vehicles for investment in rural and underserved communities. This is tied to Community Reinvestment Act and the lack of banks serving rural, as well.


Anna Claussen, director of rural strategies at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP):

Reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership and formally engage in a public reassessment of existing trade agreements and their impact on rural communities.

Trade agreements should not further the extraction of natural resources, jobs and local businesses from rural communities; nor should they further establish legal rights of multinational corporations and financial institutions to challenge national, state and local governments acting in the public interest. Rather, trade agreements should respect the rights of rural communities to set policies that support their farmers and local businesses and protect their natural resource base. Finally, trade policy should not be set in secret, behind closed doors – but rather should be open and transparent, with rural perspectives heard and reflected.


Edyael Casaperalta, law student, founder of the Rural Broadband Policy Group, formerly coordinator of media policy and justice at the Center for Rural Strategies.

Today, people do just about everything online, if they have access to the Internet and can afford it. Those who are not connected will be left behind, and most of those will be rural residents. It is important that candidates focus on extending Internet access throughout the country, and it is equally important that Internet service be affordable to all Americans. Here are two ways that they can do it:

Strengthen public programs that connect rural America: Publicly support Lifeline.

Recently, politicians have focused on proposing private-sector solutions to close the digital divide (for example, ConnectHome). While these efforts are helpful, they cannot be seen as long-term solutions that connect all Americans, especially the rural poor (of the 28 ConnectHome projects, only one serves a Native community and only two serve a city with a population smaller than 100,000). Projects that depend on the goodwill of companies begin when the telco says “yes” and end when the telco says “no.” These projects are commendable, but they are not sustainable public policy designed to serve the entire country. What rural, poor, and vulnerable Americans need are not Band-Aids, but strong public policies. Since 1985, Lifeline has given subsidies to companies so that they can sell discounted telephone service to low-income Americans. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing to 1) add Internet to the services Lifeline can offer, and 2) give the subsidy directly to recipients so they can choose the telephone, cellphone, Internet service or combination of services that they deem best. Every political candidate should champion the Lifeline program because at its core, Lifeline is about helping people get back on their feet.

Protect the safety of Americans as our communications infrastructure transforms: Make sure people can reach 911 during an emergency.

The new telephone services available to Americans such as cellphone or Internet-based telephone (like Verizon’s FIOS) do not work when the power goes out without backup power supplies. Some don’t even work with medical alert devices or home alarms. Americans now have the responsibility of buying batteries, generators, or whatever can power their telephone during an electrical outage. This might not cause alarm for many, and some might even choose to save money by not buying backup power devices. But, for those who live in places that get heavy rain, hurricanes, or other natural disasters, being able to reach 911 during an emergency makes can be a matter of life and death. The danger multiplies for those who can’t afford the backup power device and live in areas prone to natural-disasters. Presidential candidates must learn about the disruption of safety that these new technologies pose for all Americans and ensure that backup power devices will be covered by the telephone company (since they are switching from a reliable technology to a less reliable one that actually costs more for the consumer).



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