Finding a New Rural America

[imgbelt img=Minerbank.jpg]Old Rural is dead or dying. But there is a New Rural there for the communities that can find a way.


The Farm Bill and Beyond, outlines the typology of “Old Ag” verses “New Ag.” 

Old Ag is largely about protecting the status quo supported by many of the major farm groups and commodity organizations.  New Ag is a combination of grassroots farmer and food organizations and environmental groups that challenge the status quo with a vision of agriculture as producing positive environmental benefits and healthier diets.  

To oversimplify:

Old Ag Concentrated production in a few crops or animals. Increased efficiency of production—cheap is good. Public policy to protect existing advantages. Declining employment base. Protection of wealth rather than expansion.

New Ag Diverse production of integrated crops and animals. Quality over cheap. Public policy to encourage new competitive advantages. Reward farmers for positive environmental benefits. Expand economic opportunity and wealth.

The Old vs. New Ag tension needs some historical context.  For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the debate was between “Prosperity Ag” vs. “Subsistence Ag.”  Prosperity Ag, with lots of help from the federal government and key institutions like land grant universities, won. 

Prosperity Ag has largely evolved into Old Ag. And often those in Old Ag see New Ag as a return to subsistence, though others would disagree.  For a powerful subset of rural communities and individuals, Old Ag still works. It is difficult to convince those “winners” to give up a successful known for a risky unknown. But as the population data show, the number of winners under Old Ag gets smaller every decade.  

Much of Old Ag’s power is based on the myth that most rural people make their living in agriculture. This myth haunts rural America.  

Agriculture provides slightly more than 5% of the jobs in rural America; 82% of family farm income comes from sources off the farm. There are parts of the U.S. where agriculture is dominant, but in much less of the nation than 50 years ago. Focusing on agriculture, especially Old Ag, ignores the vast majority of rural people and communities.

One other misunderstanding damages rural communities: that Urban America subsidizes Rural America.  

This myth once again came to the surface in a recent exchange between Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.  Bill Bishop, in his excellent follow-up to the Vilsack-Klein debate in the Daily Yonder, showed that rural counties lag behind urban areas in federal per capita expenditures three years out of five. If you look at community development spending, rural counties are behind four out of five years. 

To extend Morgan’s concept, we can also talk about a continuum of “Old Rural” to “New Rural”  rather than a division.  

Old Rural is largely about protecting regionally dominant enterprises that produce single commodities, often with federal and state government support and protection (coal, timber, commodity crops, low-skill, low-wage manufacturing, etc.), increasing the amount, but often not the distribution of wealth.  

Old Rural is about smokestack chasing, incentivizing the temporary relocation of businesses looking for ever cheaper places.  

Old Rural is often about very limited connectivity between urban and rural.

New Rural is intentionally about broad connectivity.  New Rural is about helping regional efforts to build diverse, evolving competitive advantage that grows the amount and distribution of wealth.

Again, to oversimplify, here’s the continuum:

Old Rural Areas dominated by a single, defining economic sector that sets the expectations for wages and education. Commodity production with downward price pressure from globalization. Income and education levels falling behind national averages. Declining population based on declining economic opportunity. Cheap is good, cheaper must be better.  

Old Rural communities and regions are haunted by what they used to be rather than being energized by what they should be.

New Rural Regional approaches to diverse economies based on continual creation of competitive advantage. Broad linkages to urban and global economies seen as critical strategies. Recruit entrepreneurs and immigrants, not low-wage manufacturing. Quality of Life is critical. Environmental quality an asset to be protected, not expended.

Support of New Ag does not insure support of New Rural. Support of Old Ag does insure support of Old Rural. When policies are formulated, we need to be sure which outcome we want and for whom. Because of the great growth in agricultural and forestry productivity (often with government assistance), Old Ag and Old Rural provide living wage jobs for fewer and fewer rural people. Globalization of the last few decades has made this even more so.

Can Old Rural be the base from which New Rural emerges?  

It is possible, but unlikely. In cooperation with local and regional partners, groups like the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities are experimenting with this transition in various parts of the U.S.  But one of the lessons of the last thirty years is that Old Rural too often sees change as the enemy, rather than as a source of opportunity.  

Unfortunately, most of our rural-serving public institutions depend on the political might of Old Rural to survive.  Because the rural crisis in America is largely glacial rather than tsunamic, it is hard for people and institutions to see the need and direction to change before it is too late.  The change from Old to New is happening in a few places, but those are the exceptions.   

If your children and grandchildren must leave to find prosperity, then your approach is failing. Under Old Rural, many children have to leave. New Rural represents the potential of greater opportunity, the potential of a future that would keep our kids at home. That it is not guaranteed. It is, however, entirely possible.

(Part Two of Karl Stauber’s re-envisioning of rural America will be published in tomorrow’s edition of The Daily Yonder.)

Karl Stauber is president and CEO of the Danville (VA) Regional Foundation.