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October 23, 2014
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Rural America’s relevance

Nate Wilson

Until recently, I considered it a rank impossibility that I could hold a lower opinion of our nation’s Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack. But in condescending remarks to the Farm Journal Forum on last December 6, he unleashed a Dutch Uncle lecture at rural America that sunk him even further.

Vilsack scolded; “It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America. It’s time for a different thought process here....” He further admonished, “You will hear this speech... until it finally percolates down and starts to penetrate.” Why this need to talk down? Is it possible Vilsack perceives rural Americans in some prejudicial, archaic context, perhaps as stereotypical rubes or dumb farmers?

Vilsack whines that young people are deserting rural America because of a lack of diversity, caused by its being too closely aligned to the Republican Party and with being “reactive” rather than “proactive” in outlook. He envisions country kids being spirited away by the bright lights of the several continents, lured by the vast opportunities in the global marketplace. He berates rural America for neglecting to create diverse opportunities to hold its young people. He bemoans rural America losing political “relevance” with the rest of the nation and, somehow, being left behind. He notes that our military is lopsided with able recruits from rural America and that our national value system’s roots draw deeply from the spirit of rural America, yet he sees rural youth abandoning their homesteads.

The reality, had Vilsack the sagacity to confront it, is far different—rural kids are not forsaking their rural homes; they are being exiled from them by the very policies Vilsack has staked his ag-policy career on. Ignored are inconvenient details, such as several decades of a national cheap-food policy that destroyed the dreams of two generations of aspiring young U.S. farmers. Ignored are the evils of industrialized farming—fewer farmers on huge mono-crop farms getting ever bigger and, ironically, ever less diverse. Ignored are current national farm policies that result in unsustainable commodity prices, which often cannot even return the farmers’ production costs. These are the true cause of rural depopulation and the decline of America’s small towns, not Vilsack’s bizarre imaginings.

According to Vilsack, America’s farmers are doing just fine—record farm income, record farmland values—and for current corn and soybean farmers, he’s correct. However, the desperate plight of America’s livestock farmers is overlooked. Still blaming inflated livestock feed prices on last year’s drought, he disingenuously refuses to connect the problem to its original source—the administration’s slavish adherence to the Renewable Fuel Standard. This mandated ethanol policy creates a governmentcontrived class of winners (corn and soybean farmers) whose prosperity starkly contrasts with a class of policy-created losers, (livestock farmers), brought about by the Obama administration’s social engineering. This fiasco is developing into a crisis whose folly will make no more historical sense than Mao Tse-tung’s infamous Cultural Revolution of 1960s Communist China.

This secret will not keep, as significant numbers of America’s poultry men, dairy farmers and livestock producers complete their downward financial spiral into insolvency. With this senseless loss of crucial farms will come shortages and rapidly inflating consumer prices for eggs, meat and dairy products. The administration’s farm policy incompetence is soon destined to be painfully obvious at supermarket checkouts.

Vilsack comes by his incompetence honestly; he has no practical experience in farming or agri-business. A Pittsburgh native, trained in the law, transplanted to his wife’s hometown of Mt. Pleasant, IA, he was there vetted in politics. After two terms as Iowa governor, he was elevated to his current position by a president as blissfully ignorant of rural America as he is.

Vilsack’s insensitive remarks unmask contempt for rural Americans. His sense of moral superiority and lack of respect deprives him of the common touch, so crucial to the office he holds. This fatally handicaps his insight of the realities facing America’s iconic family farms. His tenure at the agriculture department portends failure.

Despite Mr. Vilsack’s peculiar opinions, rural America, albeit seriously challenged, is every bit as relevant today as ever. If Vilsack craves this “adult conversation,” he should engage rural America straightaway. There he will find people long accustomed to braying “jackasses” and a hornet’s nest of adult “folks” of a divergent point of view, just itching to have this chat. The point that awaits being driven home to Mr. Vilsack is that it is not rural America but he, our impertinent secretary of agriculture, who lacks relevance.

[Nate Wilson, 65, lives in Sinclairville, NY and is retired from 40 years of dairying on a small grassland farm in Chautauqua County.]

Editor’s note: For a complete transcript of Secretary Vilsack’s address, visit http://1.usa.gov/SHXXjt