You've seen the ads. The guy with the cell phone repeating ad nauseam "Can you hear me now?" Well, it's time for rural America to ask that question of our elected representatives. "Can you hear us now?"
For decades, the answer to that question has ranged from a tepid "not really" to a resounding "no." Understandably. In the past, rural interests-diverse as they areÃ¯Â¿Â½have spoken with disjointed, and at times competing, voices. They have also been dominated by agriculture with a capital A--not the small family farms that most of us care about and yet which receive little help, but the big commodity growers that grab the lion's share of federal farm assistance.
Fortunately, change is afoot.
For starters, big agriculture's domination is waning. Thanks to the current round of international trade discussions and ongoing media coverage, we now know just how broken U.S. agricultural policy is. It violates our international agreements. It jeopardizes trade in other sectors. It fails many who need assistance in favor of those who don't. (I think former NBA star Scottie Pippen can get by without his U.S. Department of Agriculture check; don't you?) However, loosening Big Ag's grip on all things rural will not, by itself, result in better policies or more money for rural America. If you think nature abhors a vacuum, watch Washington. Groups are lining up left and right, salivating at the thought of funds being freed up when Congress rewrites the Farm Bill this fall. (Even though most of the funds will likely go toward deficit reduction.) Therefore, it's crucial for Americans who want rural communities to prosper to all sing from the same page.
Enter, the Campaign for a Renewed Rural Development. Unveiled at an April press conference, the campaign brings together 28 national organizations to, as campaign sparkplug and National Association of Counties President Colleen Landkamer put it, "raise one united rural voiceÃ¯Â¿Â½"
Specifically, the campaign (ruralcampaign.org) seeks a Farm Bill that reverses the long trend of declining federal dollars to rural communities. It calls for a bill that invests in the basics needed to survive and thrive in today's world--infrastructure; entrepreneurship; health care and broadband Internet. To get it, the campaign is mobilizing the networks of its 28 member organizations. They represent both urban and rural interests; state and local officials; community and economic development practitioners; health care professionals; educational institutions; energy cooperatives; entrepreneurs; sustainable agriculture producers and others.
Members of Congress on hand for the event offered their support.
"Your cause is my cause," said Senator Tom Harkin. "You have my pledge that I intend to do everything in my power as ag chairman to get a new farm bill with the strongest possible boost to rural development."
Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for "real progress" in rural development and talked about the rural investment bill she authored.
Such words are nice, but money is better.
Referring to the last Farm Bill when much of the rural title was never funded, Landkamer said, "We're hoping this time that it's not just put in, but that it's appropriated."
That of course, raises the big ugly question: where will the money come from?
A question the campaign wisely dodges to avoid the inevitable fights it creates.
If it suggests getting money from the commodity title, Big Ag erupts. Never mind House Ag Committee member John Barrow's astute observation that, "If we don't invest in educational opportunities, in health care initiatives for rural communities, we're going to be starving the rural communities that literally grow the farmers that grow our food." If it hints at adjusting community development block grant formulas, which favor urban areas, the cities bolt. So for now, the campaign focuses on the importance of investment and leaves the money question for another time, another place. Unify first; find the money later.
As Landkamer said: "We're all in this together. Understanding that, working together and speaking with one voice makes all the difference in the world."
Congress, can you hear us now? If you can, then, to borrow another rural phrase, "git-r-done."
Thomas D. Rowley is a Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) fellow. The Rural Policy Research Institute provides objective analysis and facilitates public dialogue concerning the impacts of public policy on rural people and places.