Agriculture has dominated U.S. rural development policy. But rural advocates are composing a more comprehensive plan grounded in today's realities: think "outmigration."
Washington’s climate change since 2008 means fresh air for Partners for Rural America (PRA) and the National Rural Development Partnership, a federal-state collaboration intended to coordinate rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Washington’s recommitment to rural development is good. And continued hollowing out of rural areas is wasteful, a depletion of valuable national assets. Effective and continued targeting of federal and state assistance could create opportunities to mitigate geographic discrimination.
Last year’s USDA Rural Tour was the first step in raising the national visibility of rural development as an issue. High-ranking USDA officials and others members of the Obama cabinet visited nine rural places for listening sessions. (The Rural Tour website also has posted a blog for those who couldn’t make it to the sites. In addition, President Obama has visited numerous rural communities.)
During April and May, Partners for Rural America, with funding from the U.S. Department for Agriculture, sponsored four regional rural development “convenings.” Each meeting had the goal of stimulating regional partnerships to plan and implement rural development strategies. Each planning committee used different methods to accomplish the planning and, one would hope, to implement the ideas that emerged from the sessions. The process itself was refreshing, given the distressing record of top-down national uniformity in federal programming.
About 100 persons attended “Regions Connecting for Rural Innovation,” PRA’s meeting in Madison, WI, May 4-5. When you get this many people together, it’s likely you’ll see contradictions, manifested in different approaches to development. But considering the country’s current economic condition, participants appeared quite willing to try to develop voluntary partnerships around interest groups, partnerships that could end up promoting regional rural development.
The USDA’s agenda for the Midwest is clearly economic; USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Victor Vasquez emphasized the importance of a revitalized economy built on creating jobs and business opportunities. Yet the regional approach has clear implications for building all facets of community and regional capitals: natural, cultural, human, social, political, financial, and built. No regional approach will succeed without networks of strong communities that share their assets, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has pointed out recently.
Emphasis on a stronger economy was evident in the topic areas for regional planning and implementation posted at the Madison meeting: “small business and entrepreneurship”; “energy”; “broadband”; and “local foods and tourism.” There is no doubt that these areas are high priorities for the north-central region. Surprisingly, however, education was not on the priority list, nor were environmental issues.
When the meeting ended, groups had formed to work on the four main topic areas. Two other groups also formed, one for civic and leadership development, and another for land use in the upper Mississippi River Valley.
Despite agreement on the needs of rural development at the Midwestern PRA conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been facing critics of his ideas, according to the Des Moines Register. According to bloggers Philip Brasher and Dan Piller (May 2, 2010), Republicans at a recent House hearing said Vilsack’s focus on local food and rural development could turn farming areas into “bedroom communities.” Vilsack’s response, offered later at a meeting with agricultural journalists, noted that biorefineries would benefit farmers and would be built in small, rural towns.
Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation agrees with Vilsack about some rural needs, such as high-speed Internet service, but asserts that rural development should not come at the expense of farm programs. In other words, the Farm Bureau seems to want additional funding for rural areas. Some forces, however, are pushing for reduced farm subsidies; given the tight budget situation, some of these funds could be reallocated for rural development. According to Brasher and Piller, Vilsack told reporters that current rural programs have done little to keep people on farms or in rural areas.
Not all rural stakeholders share the consensus for rural development reached by participants at the PRA meeting in Madison. So it goes with the politics of rural America. The Obama Administration’s efforts are part of a long-running skirmish to deal with a wide scope of rural problems in an increasingly urbanized country.
A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission recognized uneven development with its recommendations to improve farm income and life. Farm income gradually became the dominant chord in rural policy. Agriculture and commodity interests have been the main shapers of rural policy since the end of World War II, while rural community and economic development have been of lesser importance.
Building agreement around rural policy apart from agriculture has always been difficult, as Franklin Roosevelt learned when his ideas for rural community development were abandoned. The political equation that makes rural equal to agriculture has been problematic, especially as the nature of rural areas has changed. The Midwest has seen constant change for generations. Change, which probably seemed rapid in 1900, has been simply stunning in the last generation or so, as agribusiness has become intensively concentrated and automation and global restructuring have led to huge losses of manufacturing jobs.
Outmigration has challenged the rural Midwest throughout its constant evolution. Although population movement is complicated, outmigration has damaged many rural community development efforts. Now rural developers face twin challenges: how to develop regional partnerships that build economic opportunities and how to make rural communities better, more attractive places to live. Outmigration has created the need for regional rural development networks and, if left unchecked, it will threaten all these efforts.
The USDA and PRA effort face three significant questions: Will the partnerships built at the recent regional meetings grow and persist? Will they be able to create the opportunities to stem the loss of people and jobs in rural areas? Ultimately, will federal and state governments be willing to provide targeted resources to the partnerships to make development happen?
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.