The other day Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, got into the headlines with a speech in which he said that rural America was “becoming less and less relevant.” Vilsack pointed out that Congress had so far failed to pass the Farm Bill, which funds not just farm subsidies, but also helps pay for infrastructure for libraries, water systems and other community facilities in rural communities.
Vilsack has been vocal about the need for people in urban areas, including the politicians they elect, to understand the critical needs of rural areas. After all, much of our food and energy originate in rural areas, so it behooves urban voters to make sure their electeds know that farmers and other rural residents need to make a living.
Part of Vilsack's speech was to chide agricultural interests that try to block President Obama's regulatory agenda, including efforts to protect child workers or give chickens more room to breathe in their coops. Rather than fighting regulations, he said, rural communities, including farmers, should focus on a progressive agenda to make positive outcomes for rural areas more likely. He said rural interests should emphasize such things as the use of farm crops as a renewable energy resource, highlighting not just corn for ethanol fuel, but also other biofuels. In a separate speech, he even mentioned how marijuana could be valuable for agricultural uses (ever heard of hemp?).
Some might question whether this administration's devotion to corporate agriculture is much different from that of past presidents, though it has set aside some funding to promote farmer's markets. It's also worth questioning the emphasis on agriculture when so many rural places stopped depending on agriculture a long time ago. Vilsack's own housing assistance program used to be called the Farmers Home Administration, but it's been called Rural Development for decades now. That's because “rural” encompasses communities where the main source of income is industry, not agriculture. Many rural towns and the surrounding areas have long looked to manufacturing to diversify their economies. For them farming is part of their heritage, but it's not realistic to make a liivng off farming in many of these locales.
Still, the Secretary's basic point is a good one. We can't allow the increasingly urban electorate to ignore the needs of people in rural areas. We will never grow most of our food within the city limits, and we certainly won't ever derive most of our energy from wind, solar, fracking or what have you in the city, either.