For the first time in decades, it appears a Farm Bill will be passed that does not have a rural development component. And that raises the question of why Congress is so unresponsive to the 95 percent of rural people who do not farm?
The farm bill amendment that would save rural development programs from deeper cuts is hanging by a thread.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is leading Senate efforts to prevent the 2012 farm bill from becoming the first in decades to zero fund rural development.
If the bill passes as is, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s funding for critical nonfarm microenterprise development support will likely end. Waiting lists for community water and sewer funding will grow longer. There will be less support for value-added agriculture, and assistance for beginning and minority farmers will be halved.
Brown’s amendment, the one that is failing to gather support, would keep a rural development program that has helped thousands of businesses and communities. And that brings up a question:
Why is the political system unresponsive to the more than 95 percent of rural people who do not farm but need jobs, opportunity and community development?
Rural development gains little mention in the news media. It’s not on the list of concerns that pundits say must be resolved before the Farm Bill can muster enough support to pass the Senate. Rather, all eyes are on the dispute between Midwestern and Southern agriculture interests on how commodity payments are structured. Rural development scarcely prompts a mention.
Rural development isn’t much of an issue because ordinary rural people are not a perceived as a powerful interest group whose expectations must be met.
Bankers, farmers, union members and insurance agents all join together to lobby for their interests. That is not to argue they are all well represented. Most family farmers, for example, support caps on payments to mega farms while most of the organizations that ostensibly represent them support unlimited payments.
But these organizations are effective in imposing expectations on elected officials, who presume they will be rewarded for advancing the interests of such organizations and fear the electoral consequences of ignoring them. Almost every farm state member of Congress is responsive to the farm lobby, presuming that responsiveness will win votes from farmers.
There are organizations lobbying for rural development funding in the Farm Bill – Center for Rural Affairs, National Association of Counties, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and others. But there is a difference. Our organizations are not presumed, individually or collectively, to represent the rural masses. And there is little fear that ignoring our pleas will prompt dire electoral consequences with rural voters generally.
So we need to change some things to win serious attention to the needs of rural America in Congress.
Rural organizations must more effectively engage rural people in our advocacy. That requires informing rural people, understanding and reflecting their concerns and enlisting their support. It requires a compelling vision of what Congress can and should do to revitalize rural communities.
As long as most rural voters expect little from Congress to address rural concerns, they will get little.
We must better organize rural citizens as a constituency for public policy that addresses rural needs. At the Center for Rural Affairs, we are building a national rural action network to act on critical rural legislation. Our goal is to engage tens of thousands of rural people across the nation on who will send letters and emails, make phone calls and speak at town hall meetings on critical rural issues before Congress.
Finally, perhaps it is times to help rural voters hold their elected officials accountable on rural issues. Environmentalists, farm groups and many others publish score cards to publicize the votes of members of congress on their priority issues. Perhaps it’s time for a well-publicized and widely followed rural scorecard of votes by members of Congress on critical rural issues.
In the meantime, we will keep pressing the cause in Washington. We need the help of everyone who reads this article – your help – in picking up the phone to urge your Senators to support the Brown amendment to the farm bill to fund rural development. If you are willing to help, please contact me at [email protected]
But if we only do what we’ve always done, we will only get what we’ve always got. So we must also do the slow, patient work of building a stronger rural constituency that will transform rural policy debates in Congress for years to come.
Chuck Hassebrook is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs of Lyons, NE.