White House Adviser Erroneously Calls Ag the ‘Primary Driver’ of Rural Economy
The White House’s first initiative to tackle rural policy goes all in on commercial agriculture, starting with a vastly inaccurate overstatement on the economic weight of the farming sector. First, let’s set the record straight about ag — an important but not predominant economic force at the national level in rural America.
In announcing a new task force this week, a key presidential agriculture adviser made a gross error in reporting the economic impact of farming in rural America.
Ray Starling, special assistant to the president on agriculture, trade, and food assistance, told press Monday night that the new White House task force would focus on agriculture because of the industry’s predominance in the rural economy.
“We do believe that in these rural communities, the best thing we can do to make them grow quickly and economically is to focus on agriculture, because it is the number one driver in these rural communities,” Starling said. (Transcript)
In fact, agriculture is not the “number one driver” of the rural economy, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Agriculture (including forestry, fisheries, and hunting) ranks fifth in earnings out of seven rural economic sectors tracked by the BEA. Agriculture ranks sixth out of seven sectors in the number of jobs it provides in rural America.
Dominant Economic Sector of Non-Metro Counties
Click on counties to see data or see the entire map here.
Like the rest of America, the lion’s share of earnings and jobs for rural Americans comes in service sectors such as healthcare and retail; business services such as insurance and leasing; the public sector; and manufacturing.
Agriculture and mining together accounted for 11% of rural earnings in 2014, according to BEA data, while manufacturing alone was responsible for 15%. (See “Rural America at a Glance” for this data and more on the rural economy.)
The counties in the U.S. that depend on agriculture as their primary economic engine are also less populous than other types of nonmetropolitan counties. Farming-dependent counties are home to 2.8 million people, which is about 6% of the rural population. The table below shows population by county type under the ERS categorization system. Farming-dependent counties rank last in population. The size of the population in manufacturing counties is more than three times greater than the size of the population in farming-dependent counties.
Starling said that any issues the task force examines that are not directly agricultural (for example, broadband, housing, and community development) were likely to be discussed in ways that relate to agriculture.
Here is an exchange, taken from the White House transcript of the Monday night briefing. The question comes from a reporter who isn’t identified:
Question: You spent a lot of time talking about farming issues, but USDA also deals with rural development, housing, broadband. Could you talk about the scope of this executive order?
STARLING: Sure. Those things are absolutely included. I would say on the messaging point there that we do believe that in these rural communities, the best thing we can do to make them grow quickly and economically is to focus on agriculture because it is the number-one driver in most of these rural communities. But we certainly understand that’s not the only silver bullet.
And so one of the things the task force is charged with doing is looking at those rural communities and also making recommendations with regard to what we can do to promote their economic stability as well.
Starling was briefing the press on the president’s new task force, the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which President Trump put into effect with an executive order today, the same day Sonny Perdue was sworn in as secretary of Agriculture. The agriculture-focused day also included a White House roundtable of 14 farmers and ag-related participants.
President Trump spoke at the roundtable and indicated much of the task force’s work would be identifying regulations that impede agricultural productivity. These regulations are not necessarily administered by USDA but also come from other agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency. The task force membership includes 10 Cabinet secretaries and the heads of agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Included in the executive order is elimination of the Obama administration’s White House Rural Council. That body, started in 2011, was created to foster cooperation among federal agencies to promote “economic prosperity and quality of life in our rural communities,” according to the executive order that established the council.
One charge of the new task force will be to determine whether there is need for a structure similar to the Rural Council in the Trump White House. If so, that body might also work across departments and agencies but would focus on agriculture, Starling said.
“One of the things that we will ask the task force to do is to take a look at, were we to create another body along those lines [of the White House Rural Council], what would that need to look like and how could it be most effective at establishing cross-agency communication and cross-agency collaboration that’s good for agriculture.”
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. Bill Bishop is founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder and a contributing editor.