There was a time when investing in rural America meant something personal to most Americans. Many of us are only two or three generations away from a nation of farmers and rural communities.
It was a time when people drank milk delivered to their doorsteps by local dairies, or ate bread baked within a hundred miles, or purchased meat from the neighborhood butcher.
But rural America has changed. And so, too, Washington must change the way it invests our tax dollars in agriculture and rural communities.
— The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service last year showed a correlation between counties receiving the highest crop subsidies and those that suffered the most rapid population decline.
— Two-thirds of the nation’s farmers receive little or no benefit from farm programs because they produce "non-program" foods and crops like fruits, vegetables, meat or hay.
— More than 92 percent of all farmers rely heavily on off-farm income.
Soon Congress will fashion the 2007 farm bill. Big decisions need to be made.
Grain and cotton growers have seen their market prices steadily decline since 1996, while their expenses have grown. Public subsidies help keep these farmers afloat. When the price farmers receive falls below the cost of production, the subsidies cover the difference. Because there effectively is no limit on the number of bushels that can receive a subsidy, farmers have an incentive to produce as much as possible. This causes surpluses that drive down prices and fuel the need for continued subsidies — a vicious cycle.
And let’s not forget the effect our production subsidies have on the farmers and rural residents of the poorest nations of the world. In the case of cotton, for example, U.S. subsidies have caused surpluses that have led to a lower world price. This means lower incomes for millions of cotton farmers in West Africa — and less money to dig a new well, or build school rooms and medical clinics. U.S. corn subsidies have had a similar effect on farmers in Mexico. When incomes go too low, these people often must migrate to cities to find work, and end up in places like Dakar or Cairo, maybe Milan or London, or even Los Angeles or Wichita.
Reforming U.S. farm programs is not a silver bullet for the problem of poverty and rural decline in the world. The farmers of poor nations also must have improved crop genetics and agricultural education. Nevertheless, reform could contribute to a world where rural people can earn honest livings and a better life.
What might be a recipe for an improved farm bill in 2007?
First, public money should not be linked to production, a practice that only distorts the market place. Instead, our tax dollars should be invested in ways that deliver broad public benefits, stabilize farm numbers and rural communities, and do no harm to poor farmers in other countries.
One way is to provide more money for conservation. If fully funded and implemented, the Conservation Security Program could help support U.S. farm income by encouraging farmers to protect our air, water, soil and wildlife habitat. This program could also encourage energy conservation on the farm and the use of new, cleaner forms of energy.
Second, we need to invest more in rural development. A recent Farm Bureau report said, "Farmers are more dependent on rural communities than rural communities are dependent on farmers.
Farmers today need off-farm income. If they are to keep their farms and stay in their communities, they need jobs nearby. Let’s promote such jobs by providing incentives that encourage entrepreneurs to build businesses in small places. Growth in rural jobs and population can in turn provide new and local markets for a greater diversity of local food production, which also should be promoted in the new farm bill.
Rural America has been the wellspring of this country’s leadership and values. We have drawn from and benefited from that source. Now it is time to replenish farm country in wise and sustainable ways.
JIM FRENCH farms and ranches in Reno County, Kan., and works as U.S. lead field organizer for Oxfam America, an international development agency. He wrote this for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.