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Rural America Ain?t What It Used To Be PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Tuesday, 21 March 2006
AFF Sentinel Vol.3 #6

Not What He Meant But It Is True

"Rural America isn't what it used to be."

That comment was made during a Lubbock radio show on which I was a guest recently. Their were several other guests, including a cotton farmer, a farmer/rancher couple producing "natural" food and broadcasters sympathetic to populist American views.

The statement illuminates a key element of discussions nationwide regarding agriculture, rural America and the 2007 Farm Bill.

But that one and others voiced during the show describe symptoms. Tough market prices for grains, shrinking rural communities, fewer farmsteads, higher costs and competitive pressures are obvious. But many farmers, ranchers and fringe organizations do not seem able to diagnose root causes of those symptoms. They can find folks to blame. Perhaps it's because the forces at work are unrecognized by them but feel so inexorable. But the only force they can think of powerful enough to counter is more big government and restrictions on others. That spells less freedom and market responsiveness for agriculture.

"Rural American ain't what it used to be." As a friend of mine likes to say, if people want to blame someone for fewer rural communities, start with Henry Ford. We don't go to town in a buckboard anymore. With the vehicles and roads today, a town an hour away is 50 to 70 miles distant.

And customers - rural, small town or big city folks - often shop where they can park once, get everything they want under one or two roofs, get a wide selection and the lowest prices. That's demonstrated consumer behavior.

The reduced competitiveness - price and selection - of small, rural merchants is an economic liability, given shoppers' mobility. The Sears & Roebuck's catalog is long gone. The Internet is just kicking in.

What about farmsteads? Do we really expect a 21st century agriculture with the same number of farm families required to produce food and feed as it did 50 years ago? Our productivity makes that impossible. There's just not room for as many farmers as when an acre produced 60 bushels of corn or cows weaned off 375-lb. calves. Yet we would still like to have all the neighbors we used to have when we were kids.

The reaction of some farmers and ranchers is that they deserve better because they're good, hardworking people and America needs them and their food. Their solution is something few industries get. If the market will not pay what they need, they feel the government should make up the difference to guarantee them an income above the cost of production. In other words, taxpaying families in small towns and big cities should pay a portion of their farm family's income.

These farmers and ranchers are afraid of the lower labor costs in South and Central America or Asia. They don't take into account technology and management differences, transportation costs, capital requirements, our product being different - grain-fed beef or that we are a lean beef deficit country. They also scare people by neglecting to mention imported beef comes from USDA-inspected plants.

It is true that American farmers and ranchers are more important to us than foreign ones. But the average U.S. consumer and taxpayer thinks that their family comes first. They want the best value for their hard-earned dollars. Wherever things come from - whether cars, computers or food - they expect it to be high quality and safe. They want all food available every time they go to the grocery, not just when it's convenient for farmers, retailers or Mother Nature in continental America.

Farm commodity programs were designed as temporary fixes to help farmers weather the Dirty ?30s and the Great Depression. They have become ingrained in the structure of American agriculture and rural communities. The changes the rest of the world responded to long ago - a two percent production agriculture segment and a mobile society - have never been fully felt in rural America. That's because taxpayers - willingly or knowingly or not - have been paying out to delay that impact on agriculture and rural communities.

Will that continue?

What kind of "ain't what it used to be" is next for rural America?

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 24 June 2006 )
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