Discussing Ag and Rural Life — Dispatches from Ames
Before the candidates arrived, the discussion at the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life was about the present and future of rural America. Here’s what happened.
Dr. Cornelia Flora, talking at Saturday's National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life.
Photo: Tim Marema
This morning, before the presidential candidates arrived (either in person or by electronic hookup), we all attended panels about different rural topics. We opened up with Ken Tow instead of Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey, who was picking corn today. Tow is Iowa's director of conservation. Northey had accepted but decided late in the game to sit it out.
On the panel first was Mil Duncan from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. She described three rural Americas, amenity-rich areas, declining resource-dependent areas that do mining and agriculture, and impoverished areas.
Amenity-rich areas tend to create gated communities and to be divided with both haves and have-nots, she said. Population tends to grow in these areas.
Declining resource areas are marked by a declining supply of jobs due to agricultural consolidation. These places have declining populations.
Impoverished rural areas, Duncan’s third rural type, contain nearly 7.5 million poor. Nearly 47% of the people living in these rural communities are poor, compared to the average of 38%. Sixty to 80 percent of people in poor rural areas know someone who is serving in the military in the Mideast. Adequate education is lacking.
What are some solutions?
Duncan suggested more environmental controls, living wages, affordable housing and fewer gated communities. Communities should build their human capital. Duncan also suggested new Homestead-Act-type policies to encourage people to move to rural communities.
Sara Johnson was the Rural Youth Summit representative. Sara spoke about many of the topics discussed in Friday's youth meeting. She conveyed an optimistic attitude toward rural life and the many obstacles we face, obstacles which she said her group believes they can overcome. Rural broadband coverage was among the top priorities of the youth group, as well as a global food system that could both feed and provide employment for all people.
Niel Ritchie, director of the League of Rural Voters, at podium, welcomes participants to the 2007 National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life. Speaker in the morning session were (left to right) Sara Johnson representing the Rural Youth Summit; Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; Dr. Cornelia Butler Flora of the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development and Ken Tow, Iowa's director of conservation.
Photo Tim Marema
Ralph Paige, executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives said we have to work with our youth to help them overcome the obstacles they face. We need to address agriculture as a rural policy, not a commodity policy. To stay in rural communities, minorities have to work “mcjobs” — sometimes two — to make ends meet. Paige said rural areas need economic opportunity, a tax base for schools, infrastructure and jobs. He said that black farmers have lost 15 million acres and that there are now fewer than 20,000 black farmers nationwide.
Dr Cornelia Butler Flora, from the North Central Regional Center for Rural Development, said that current policy favors large farms by supporting single crops. She also said there had been poor enforcement of environmental laws and little accountability of big business. The demand for large, single-crop farms comes from the government, which pays for both through subsidies. This is a false demand, she said.
Flora emphasized marketability in farm policy: to grow and sell things that have real demand. We have “working poverty” in rural areas, Flora said, as rural people have to work several jobs to make ends meet.