The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing last week on “The State of the Rural Economy.” I’ve lived in a rural community for 25 years, working with rural fishing communities. For the last 11 years, I’ve served as the director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA). In 2018, as part of an innovative shared leadership model between the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) and NAMA, I began working with rural farming communities as well.
To kickstart my role, I hit the road for two months last summer. During this 13,000 mile journey, I had the honor of visiting 67 farming and fishing communities. With a couple of exceptions, they were all rural. Despite my quarter century living in and visiting rural communities, last year’s experience was unique, and showed me what is truly happening in “flyover” country.
Financial uncertainty, disappearance of their social systems, lack of access to basic services, isolation, and emigration - especially the younger generation - are among their top concerns.
What I learned on this epic journey is that all rural communities are reeling. It doesn’t matter if they are surrounded by water or cornfields. Financial uncertainty, disappearance of their social systems, lack of access to basic services, isolation, and emigration - especially the younger generation - are among their top concerns.
It’s one thing to hear this from a couple of communities on an occasional farm or boat tour; another to hear it day after day, mile after mile, from communities that, though miles away from each other, share and live each other’s pain.
We can’t talk about the state of rural communities without recognizing the underpinnings of their struggle. Our visits last year taught us that their real struggles are rooted in:
- Corporate consolidation and concentration of power and wealth, leading to diminished or lost access to essential inputs such as clean water, affordable land or fishing rights, infrastructure, markets, capital, and assistance from federal agencies.
- Economic disempowerment, stemming from a lack of fair prices to farmers, ranchers, and fishermen, and their inability to cover costs of production -- much less make a profit and put aside savings.
- A feeling of disenfranchisement and isolation. Many of our hosts were surprised that we chose to visit them. The sentiment we heard many times was, “Nobody comes here.”
We also learned that despite all their struggles, rural residents are resilient, self-sufficient, hardworking, and dedicated to organizing and improving their lives and communities. In the absence of political leadership, they are taking matters into their own hands. They are sharing land with entrepreneurial young farmers; building cooperative businesses; passing local regulations to improve their access to real food grown, raised, or caught by their neighbors; developing new business models designed to feed the most vulnerable in their communities; repurposing empty lots into growing fields; and, coming together to support each other after natural disasters. The latter is particularly important since disaster relief monies were cut from the most recent appropriations bill.
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While the U.S. government has prioritized the bailout of Wall Street with public monies, it has marginalized distressed rural communities and failed to provide the necessary funds, expertise and assistance to help revitalize them.
During Wednesday’s hearing, USDA Secretary Perdue and Members of Congress patted themselves on the back for quickly passing the 2018 Farm Bill, emphasizing that the legislation will deliver farmers from this period of economic distress. The lawmakers’ message to farmers was, “Hold on six more months while we begin to get the Farm Bill implemented.”
But many family farmers, particularly small and mid-size grain and dairy farmers entering their fourth or fifth year of chronically low prices, do not have reserves to hold on for even another month, much less six. USDA's own economists are projecting low prices continuing into the coming years. With rising farm interest rates and dwindling income from their farms, the 2018 Farm Bill and the federal government's status quo approach is not working for family farmers.
We must do better. In the absence of political leadership, those of us who eat must step up to the plate. We must speak loudly enough so Secretary Perdue and Members of Congress understand that they can no longer reach for bandaids to fix what’s ailing rural communities. Major interventions are needed, and many of the local leaders in rural farming, ranching, and fishing communities have ideas and strategies that can fuel these solutions. Public officials must work with rural communities to develop thoughtful plans, provide them with skilled practitioners, and ensure well-funded and directed programs.
Rural America deserves no less.