A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rural America needs help as well as hope

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 18, 19 or 20

When U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the recent Rural Futures Conference in Nebraska and spoke about new opportunities for rural America and growing the rural economy, the former Iowa governor laid it on thick but was thin on specifics.

Federal assistance to small towns and rural businesses has dropped by half over the last 10 years, according to research by the Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA). And that’s in spite of broad support for such investment. Almost nine in ten rural Americans say the rural, small town way of life is worth fighting for, but seven in ten worry that it’s dying, according to a CFRA poll of rural voters in over 20 Midwestern, Great Plains and Southeastern states.

Of course, rural America doesn’t have the population (meaning votes) and grass-roots economic power (meaning legislative influence such as lobbyists), so it’s a tough row to hoe.

Still, some rural activists were heartened by his talk.

“It is encouraging to hear the Secretary talk of the Administration’s support for innovative rural policies that can create real economic opportunity and help address depopulation in small-town and rural America,” said Traci Bruckner, CFRA’s Senior Associate for Agriculture and Conservation Policy. “We agree that there is much unrealized and untapped potential in rural America. Many of America’s small towns and rural areas also face stern challenges, and we need effective federal policy to overcome those challenges and unleash that potential.”

One challenge is what beginning farmers and ranchers face in getting resources and land, and in getting the guidance and advice they need, and many rural Americans hope the long-delayed Farm Bill will deal with that. The Farm Bill could keep direct funding for the Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides training and technical assistance, and CFRA supports a commitment of at least $20 million per year, with an ongoing set-aside for veterans, socially disadvantaged and limited-resource farmers and ranchers, without diverting funds to unrelated programs.

Also, Bruckner advocates “providing direct Farm Bill funding for the Value-Added Producer Grant program at its historic level of $20 million per year and increasing direct spending for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program to $10 million per year.”

In rural America, three in four people who CFRA polled this summer back a common-sense approach to finding the money to pay for such investments, and the Center interprets that as stopping “over-subsidizing” the nation’s largest farms, Bruckner says, because those operations “use virtually unlimited subsidies to drive their smaller neighbors out of business.”

Vilsack was less forthcoming about the Farm Bill or other policy initiatives than just sharing feel-good philosophical remarks. The future of rural America is tied to how well the rest of America understands and supports it, Vilsack said on Nov. 5, when he stressed diversifying the rural economy and explaining to urban neighbors why the rest of the country matters, too.

“Now is the time to re-emphasize, re-educate and remind America about the importance of rural America,” he said.

Bruckner received such comments well, she says.

“Secretary Vilsack’s statements about creating opportunities for new farmers gives us hope that these investments in the next generation of family farmers and ranchers are a real possibility,” she says.

That’s nice. Optimism is terrific. But realism isn’t bad, either, and it requires rural citizens to press officials to act as well as talk, from Cabinet officials to Congressmen, from Springfield to Washington.

Without practical expectations and pragmatic action, nothing will get better.

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