Rural America’s political clout slipping, USDA secretary warns

Farm Forum

MITCHELL — Rural America is in a struggle to remain relevant. So said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in December after rural voters showed up for the November election in lackluster numbers and as Congress was letting a new farm bill slip through its fingers.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” Vilsack said Dec. 8. “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

Given that voter turnout in rural counties across the nation fell from 67.2 percent in 2008 to 54.9 percent in 2012, an 18.3 percent decline, according to the Southern Rural Development Center study, Vilsack’s warnings seem well-timed.

But not everyone agrees with his assessment.

“I disagree with Secretary Vilsack’s comments that rural America is becoming less and less relevant. While the population continues to shift to more urban areas, America’s agricultural producers continue to provide safe and affordable food as well as fuel for this country, and food for much of the world’s population,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.

South Dakota Agriculture Secretary Walt Bones said that as fewer and fewer Americans work in production agriculture, the collective understanding of rural life fades.

“I think Secretary Vilsack’s comments are meant to address the reality that fewer Americans have direct ties to farming and ranching, and as a result the majority of Americans do not have a firsthand grasp on where their food comes from,” Bones said. “In that sense, he’s right — there’s no question that the population of rural areas has been declining for decades. However, the importance of agriculture has never been greater.”

Even Vilsack sought to clarify his remarks during an interview with his hometown newspaper, the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review.

“I want to make sure that everybody understands, when I say political relevance, I don’t mean that rural America itself isn’t relevant,” Vilsack told the paper. “It’s a source of food, water, energy, fuel, jobs and a disproportionate number of our servicemen and women, so it is extremely relevant, in terms of what it contributes to the country.”

But the trends that Bones notes are undeniable.

Even in South Dakota, where agriculture remains the No. 1 industry, the trend is marked. In 1935, the state claimed more than 83,000 farms and ranches, according to South Dakota State University’s Rural Life Census Data Center. As agriculture has become more industrialized, that number dropped to fewer than 32,000 by 2000. During that same time period, the state’s population grew by fewer than 55,000.

Between 1970 and 2000, those working in agriculture in South Dakota dropped by 30 percent, the only sector to lose workers besides mining.

None of it surprises Don Simmons, dean of leadership and public service at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

“Of course their influence is waning. The percentage of people living in rural America as opposed to those in urban areas continues to decline. The percentage of South Dakotans who live on a farm or ranch, as opposed to cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City, is declining also. The political struggle for farmers and ranchers to be heard by their elected officials in Washington will become increasingly difficult,” Simmons said.

A construct of America’s political system has been a saving grace, he said.

“The U.S. Senate is about the only firewall that farmers and ranchers have these days. Every state has two senators, which gives rural states leverage they do not have in the House of Representatives,” Simmons said. “I do think, however, that to expect Kristi Noem to be able to exert any influence in the House when she is our only representative, while California has 53 representatives in the U.S. House, is being a little unfair.”

Both of South Dakota’s senators are eager to promote the fact that a farm bill was passed last year in the U.S. Senate. It was the House where things unraveled.

“Passage of the farm bill in the U.S. Senate sent a clear message that rural America and Senators representing them are willing to do their part to reduce the federal deficit yet ensure adequate measures are in place to secure America’s safe and economical food supply,” Thune said. “The Senate’s bipartisan passage of its version of the 2012 farm bill, which included significant reforms to current agriculture policy, would have been a significant boost to rural America and would have saved taxpayers more than $23 billion over 10 years.”

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said: “This is not a problem with the voices of rural members not being heard. In the Senate, I worked with Republicans and Democrats to pass a bipartisan farm bill that would improve the livelihoods of rural Americans. When I have something to say about proposals that would affect rural America, my colleagues listen and take them into consideration when shaping policy.”

Johnson repeated his claims that the problem lies within the increasingly conservative House Republicans.

“The problem is the tea party. These are members, even some from rural areas, who don’t think the federal government has a role to play in agriculture or other rural issues,” Johnson said. “This is disappointing and the House’s failure to even vote on a farm bill last Congress is a perfect example.”

In his December speech, Vilsack highlighted the “farm dust” bill backed by Noem, R-S.D., as being a “wedge issue” that hurt the credibility of rural interests. Noem’s bill would have prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating much of the dust kicked up by rural activities, including farming and ranching.

When asked to respond, Noem did not directly discuss her bill but said this: “We (in Congress) have been united in opposing policies that could hurt agriculture and rural America. Since I was first elected to Congress in 2010, grassroots efforts from states like South Dakota have prevented the Obama administration from adding more red tape that would be burdensome to farmers and ranchers.”

With the future of the farm bill an open question, it’s difficult to predict what America’s ag policy might look like going forward.

South Dakota’s Bones said it’s possible to imagine that future as farm bill-free, but that’s unlikely.

“It’s certainly possible that the farm bill as we know it today will not exist sometime in the future. There have been discussions for quite some time about changing the different titles that are included,” Bones said. “That said, there are a number of aspects of the farm bill that I don’t think will go away. The United States has the safest, most abundant food supply in the world. Eliminating the farm bill entirely — which is extremely unlikely — would undermine this incredible achievement.”

The senators side-stepped a question about the possibility that the farm bill could fade into history, but Noem said she is as determined as ever to prevent that.

“A farm bill ensures that we have a safe and reliable food supply here in the United States and passing this legislation remains my top priority. I will continue to work with my colleagues in the House to pass a full five-year bill,” Noem said.