Rural Dialogues | Radical Old Ideas Gaining Ground in New Rural America

 

Pistachio farmer Jim Chew. (CC BY 2.0) Photo by USDA 

By Karen Hansen Kuhn

There are cliches of what rural America is: white, conservative and climate change denying. As so often is the case, the truth is more complex.  There are opportunities too in the difficulties climate change presents, for rural communities to engage with the topic – and with each other. IATP’s Rural climate dialogues, the work policy makers from heartland states are putting into the farm bill of rights, all of which can give heft to the green new deal movement, show how the countryside can innovate and lead on the matters that matter most. 

Simple Myths and Rural Realities  

One of the curious stereotypes of rural America is that it is driven by old fashioned, out of touch white men, mostly farmers, who reject change and long for a past when their choices were simpler. Like any generalization, there are elements of truth in that story, for some people, at some times, but it misses the boat both on that past and the present. Some of the most radical, comprehensive proposals today are emerging in rural economies, firmly grounded in a history of transformative change.

While farming has been the backbone of American rural economies for decades, even centuries, the current reality is more complex. Bryce Oates grapples with this situation in a useful article on measuring rurality, informed by census data. To start with, he points out that the states with the highest percentages of rural residents are Maine (home of Rep. Chellie Pingree, see below), Vermont (home of Sen. Bernie Sanders) and West Virginia.

Vue Her Thai farmer growing Asian specialty crops near Fresno (Public Domain)

Even by total rural population, the numbers are surprising: Texas has the most rural residents, at 3.8 million, followed by North Carolina and Pennsylvania. It’s easy to see that those states, far from the red state stereotype, are politically diverse. In many states, the exodus of young people and deaths from an aging population have been matched or exceeded by inflows of immigrants, as well as urban people seeking affordable housing and calmer communities in nearby areas. Rural areas are also economically diverse. Farming is an important sector in most areas, but it’s far from the only one, as rural economies employ more people in manufacturing, government services recreation and mining. Interestingly, the top economic sector is “not specialized,” again reflecting the inadequacy of simplistic categories.

Cotton Grading Texas. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung. (Public Domain)

It is still true, however, that unemployment and poverty rates are generally higher in rural than urban areas. In addition to jobs, access to healthcare and infrastructure, including broadband, are concerns across the country. And the farm economy is in deep crisis, struggling with years of overproduction and low prices, and now the enormous market uncertainty caused by Trump’s trade skirmishes with China.

The Green New Deal

Commercial hightunnels in Santa Maria, CA, USDA Photo by Lance Cheung. (Public Domain)

The Green New Deal, famously initiated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the student-led Sunshine Movement, calls for a visionary new approach to climate and justice, one that at least initially didn’t spell out a clear approach to rural economies or farming. Since then, several important initiatives have emerged to broaden the Green New Deal to focus on regenerative agriculture and farm justice. These include a letter led by Friends of the Earth endorsed by the National Family Farm Coalition, Pesticide Action Network of North America and 300 food, farm and consumer organizations, and a statement by more than 150 scientists on the need for agroecological solutions in the Green New Deal.

A few months ago, when I first mentioned the Green New Deal to a European colleague, he assumed I meant a New Green Deal, i.e., a new approach to environmental protection. But the Depression era New Deal it references emerged from a powerful collaboration between rural and urban Americans. It was not only a new government public works program to employ people and build national monuments, it was a frontal assault on the notion that markets would be self-correcting. Clearly, that approach failed to reach all Americans, especially people of color, but it was a significant shift in public policy and thinking. As New England organic farmer and thought leader Elizabeth Henderson explains in an article on agriculture and the Green New Deal, it was also the genesis of a system of supply management and parity pricing for agriculture that continued well into the 1980s. Today, she writes,

“For Sale” signs have replaced “Dairy of Distinction” on the last two dairy farms on the road I drive to town. The farm crisis of the 1980s that never really went away has resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2013, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2012. Farm income has continued to decline ever since. The moment is ripe for the movement for a sustainable agriculture to address the root causes.”

Rural Climate Dialogues in a Polarised Era

Martha Romero guides husband Salvador Prieto as he drives and dumps a load of mulch at their Hass avocado trees. California. Public Domain.

Before we get to the elements of what those new policies could be, it’s important to consider how to rebuild trust and a sense of community. One of the defining features of the Trump era is extreme polarization, both between political parties and between urban dwellers and “flyover country.” Many initiatives are underway to try to build bridges with rural communities.

One apparent point of disagreement has been on the threat of climate change. In Minnesota, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Institute hosted Rural Climate Dialogues in four communities, followed by a statewide convening. These built new connections among participants and led to some concrete new initiatives, such as the development of a state program navigator report to help people connect with the right programs on energy, health care, agriculture, and natural resources. As Tara Ritter, one of the organizers, explains,

These Dialogues are built upon the belief that, although rural communities have a lot at stake when it comes to climate change, they are often overlooked in climate conversations, and policy tends to center on urban and suburban perspectives. In many communities, this has led to a culture of misinformation and confusion that prevents publicly supported policy from emerging.

The Rural Climate Dialogues use the Citizens Jury method for community problem solving and leadership development. This approach, which brings together a representative sample of the community to study an issue in-depth and generate a shared community response, provides a productive, educational and inclusive way to address challenges.”

Grappling with the Big Issues: Climate Change, Corporate Concentration and Fair Prices

Irrigation instillation among nut trees owned by Akram Mohammad in Texas. USDA photo by J.M. Villarreal.

In addition to, or perhaps in preparation for, a Green New Deal, other new initiatives are emerging to confront the challenges of climate change, corporate concentration and fair prices. Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, an organic farmer and a leader on good food and farm policy in Congress, introduced a new policy initiative outlining five priorities on climate change and agriculture. 

These five priorities are

  • making soil health a top priority;
  • protecting existing farmland and keeping farmers on the land;
  • supporting pasture-based livestock systems;
  • boosting investments in on-farm renewable energy systems; and
  • reducing food waste.

Congress remains mired in controversy on most issues, so it’s hard to know if these ideas will move forward anytime soon, but there could be support for funding for some issues that bridge political divides, such as measures to strengthen soils and increase support for on-farm energy. Progress on those areas, in turn, could lead to a fuller inclusion of rural priorities in the Green New Deal vision.

Brubaker Farms Pennsylvania USDA Photo by Lance Cheung. Public Domain

Corporate concentration in agriculture has increased dramatically over the last few decades, decreasing farmers’ bargaining power, as well as restricting choices for seeds and other inputs. What’s new is that the issue is rising up to national debates in a variety of ways. R-CALF, a national ranchers’ organization, along with four cattle-feeding ranchers from Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming filed a class action lawsuit alleging that, “the nation’s four largest beef packers violated U.S. antitrust laws, the Packers and Stockyards Act, and the Commodity Exchange Act by unlawfully depressing the prices paid to American ranchers.” Those firms control 80% of beef processing in the U.S.

A Farmers Bill of Rights

Some of the 17,000 poultry at Seldom Rest Farms. Photo for USDA by Lance Cheung. CC by 2.0

Those issues and others were front and center at a series of events organized by Family Farm Action in March in Storm Lake, Iowa. Farmers and their communities gathered to call on Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement a nine article Farmers Bill of Rights which would aspire to, among others actions, enforce fair market practices, restore country of origin labeling for meat, and improve natural resource conservation rules. Family Farm Action organized a rally, at which speakers pointed directly to the devastation of farm country caused by U.S. agricultural policy designed to support fewer and bigger agribusiness corporations rather than farmers themselves. They called on presidential candidates on the campaign trail in Iowa to respond later that afternoon at the Heartland Forum, sponsored by the Huffington Post, Storm Lake Times, Open Markets Action and the Iowa Farmers Union.

New ideas on corporate concentration are emerging in Congress as well, including a moratorium on further mergers of agribusinesses introduced by Sen. Cory Booker. That bill, which has been endorsed by more than 80 food and farm organizations from across the country, would also establish a commission including farmers and ranchers to examine the problem and recommend changes in antitrust laws. It is a good starting point and has helped to elevate the issue in the press and in the political debate.

Many of the new debates on food and farm policy across rural America, including on a Green New Deal for agriculture, are grounded in concepts of resiliency, equity, local democracy and transformation [listen to this great podcast by IATP’s Ben Lilliston for more on this]. So, for example, climate change not only affects crops but also farmworkers, many of whom are immigrants and people of color confronting historic and current discrimination.

The solutions must involve concrete improvements in farmworkers’ labor and other human rights, as well as energy efficient housing and access to health care for everyone. Initiatives to improve soil health and expand renewable energy must also consider exactly who benefits from increased investment and how those efforts can strengthen local control and the local tax base. So, while it’s great to hear political leaders finally talking about regenerative agriculture, it’s really exciting that so many farmers and rural communities are leading the way in debates on comprehensive approaches to deal with equity and climate. That’s the real New Deal.

Karen Hansen-Kuhn
About Karen Hansen-Kuhn 7 Articles
Karen Hansen-Kuhn has been working on trade and economic justice since the beginning of the NAFTA debate. She has published articles on U.S. trade and agriculture policies, the impacts of U.S. biofuels policies on food security, and women and food crises. She started to learn about the challenges facing farmers as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay, where she worked with a rural cooperative. She was the international coordinator of the Alliance for Responsible Trade (ART), a U.S. multisectoral coalition promoting just and sustainable trade, until 2005. After that, she was policy director at the U.S. office of ActionAid, an international development organization. She holds a B.S. in International Business from the University of Colorado and a master's degree in International Development from The American University.