President Barack Obama announced on June 30 that administration officials would be fanning out across the nation to hold discussions on how best to strengthen rural America.
"A healthy American economy depends on a prosperous rural America," President Obama said. "Rural America is vast and diverse, and different communities face different challenges and opportunities. That’s why we’re going out to hear directly from the people of rural America about their needs and concerns and what my administration can do to support them."
Speaking in Missouri and New Hampshire, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated that the federal government would invest millions in water treatment facilities, guaranteed loans for rural business' and farmers, Forest Service funding, nutrition assistance programs and flood abatement projects.
Vilsack noted the need for more off-farm job opportunities, because, “most farm families work 200 days a year off the farm.” Imagine, one nearly full-time job, off-farm, just to keep the farm going.
The administration is talking around the problem. Farmers can't make a living farming. Why should farmers have to work 200 days a year off-farm just so they can continue to farm, one of the most labor intensive and necessary jobs in the country? The administration's solutions are non-starters. The administration calls for more agriculture-based fuels, ethanol and bio-diesel. We tried that, dozens of new ethanol plants and millions more acres planted to corn and still the rural economy sinks deeper into depression.
The administration calls for more agricultural trade. Under existing international trade agreements we have become a food deficit nation using our farming capacity to grow fuel and animal feed in the midst of a world food crisis.
The administration calls for more use of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds, whose advantages outweigh any risk, according to Vilsack. They have been on the market for nearly 15 years and still, farm incomes fall.
Like their urban counterparts, rural Americans have seen their jobs outsourced, their buying power and their real wages fall. Farmers have no minimum wage or cost of living increase, yet their cost of production increases yearly. Not only do farmers have families to support, but their land, buildings, machinery and livestock need to be maintained and cared for.
When the cost of production on America's dairy farms is roughly twice their income, bankruptcies, depression, suicide and full-scale economic collapse are the result. Prices paid to dairy farmers have tanked, consumers have seen no price break and the profits of dairy processors have soared.
The administration had few qualms about bailing out the auto industry and the banking industry, both of which pulled plenty of profits out of rural America. Now the administration seems intent on supporting the grain companies, the corporate seed and chemical merchants and the processing industry; again, the wrong people.
If the administration really wants to help rural America, it must support farmers:
* Grain farmers need a stable price, a farmer-owned grain reserve to give them stability and save billions in taxpayer subsidies.
* Livestock producers need protection from the three or four meat processors that control the industry, eliminating any prospect of competitive markets.
* Dairy processors need a milk price based on the cost of production, protection from illegal foreign imports and the monopolistic processors that own the dairy industry.
The beauty of these measures is that not only will they give farmers a chance at a living wage, but they will also help stabilize the supply and price of food.
Just as the greed of Wall Street needs government regulation, so too, the stranglehold of agribusiness on rural America must be broken.
Recall William Jennings Bryant's warning, “I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in this country.”
Jim Goodman is a dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin, and an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Society Policy Fellow.