Speak Your Piece: Farm Bill Blues

[imgbelt img=maebtcards250.jpg]A hundred years ago, T. Roosevelt made the mistake of equating rural with “agricultural.” The latest version of the Farm Bill is guided by the same wrong idea.


Bob Nichols/USDA

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) walked with Lin Spicer through timberland on Spicer’s farm in Church Creek, Maryland. Spicer has taken part in a conservation program to improve his pines, the sort of program likely to be cut in the current Farm Bill.

Count me among the disappointed. Or pessimistic. Or both.

Bill Bishop’s recent discussion of President Obama’s “rural term paper” suggests the continued withdrawal of Washington from large segments of rural America. The administration’s support of the Senate version of the 2012 Farm Bill, which, at the moment lacks a rural development title and reduces funding for food programs and conservation, is problematic at best. The apparent support for cuts in food programs is reprehensible.

The Farm Bill, as currently presented, is designed for the few, not the many. Apparently, this is acceptable to the administration. That’s disappointing, especially from an administration that says it believes in rural communities and people.

[imgcontainer left] [img:maebtcards250.jpg] [source]New Jersey Division of Family Development

New Jersey’s Electronic Benefit Card (today’s “food stamp”)

If rural development is eliminated from the 2012 Farm Bill, with the administration’s endorsement, we are moving beyond unconstitutional post office closures; we will be abandoning policies that have evolved for more than a century, accelerating since the early 1970s. We are talking ultimately about limiting opportunities to improve the quality of life for the majority of rural residents who are not farmers. If food programs for the poor are reduced, those cuts will fall more heavily on rural communities where, even in good times, job opportunities are limited and poverty can be grating. Cuts in conservation programs are coming even as we need to use our land more intensively for food and energy.

Tuesday afternoon, rural development funding was retained in the Senate version of the Farm Bill, but at a much reduced amount from the previous bill. An amendment restored $150 million for development purposes; since 1996, farm bills have had an average of $413 million for rural development. The House must still concur with the Senate bill. 

A “rural equals agriculture” policy strategy has predominated in this country at least since it was enshrined in Theodore Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission Report of 1909. Even Roosevelt’s friends and advisors recognized the mistake, and by 1920 they were talking about programs for rural communities that included small cities, towns, and villages. They came to understand a holistic approach that included education, human services, clean water, sewage systems, transportation, and a host of other factors that improve the quality of rural life.