Friday, March 11, 2011

Invoking rural values and virtues to defend farm subsidies

Those are two issues that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack brought together this week in a conversation he had with Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein. The dialogue between the two appears to have been prompted by a column Klein wrote about Edward Glaeser's new book, The Triumph of the City (subject of this earlier blog post). Klein's post book mostly waxed poetic about cities and said little about rurality. But Klein closed his column with this:
[I]t would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.
I find it interesting that this little jab in particular got Vilsack's back up because, frankly, so much rural bashing goes on in the media. (See posts here and here). Maybe it was the mention of subsidies that did the trick, evoking Vilsack's ire. Klein referred to subsidies in relation to "rural living," but Vilsack may have read it as regarding farm subsidies because he talked about the latter in his response.

In fact, Vilsack responded with various arguments about the value of rural places and, in particular, rural culture. Here is part of Klein's report of what Vilsack said to him:
I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.
Interesting data and arguments, no? In summary, Vilsack
  • stood up for the needs of persistent poverty counties.
  • argued that we should value rural places because they supply a lot of soldiers (Vilsack subsequently argues that this phenomenon is linked to rural culture)
  • pointed out the significance of agriculture to the American economy
  • claimed rural America as the source of "food, fiber, and feed," as well as "renewable water resources."
The first item in the list there struck me as rather disingenuous because the USDA's budget is so disproportionately devoted to agriculture. As a fellow blogger pointed out last week, the USDA includes a Department of Rural Development, but its budget comprises a tiny part of the USDA's overall budget. I wish Vilsack and the USDA were as concerned about persistent poverty in rural America as the comment suggests, but I don't see evidence to prove it.

I also found of interest Vilsack's argument that the disproportionate number of rural folks doing military service is related to rural culture. Vilsack said:
They send their children to the military not just because it’s an opportunity, but because they have a value system from the farm: They have to give something back to the land that sustains them.
Again, I find this interesting, but not convincing. Call me cynical, but I think many young rural folks join the military because of lack of other opportunities. This is not to say they are not patriotic--just that there's more to the disproportionate rate at which rural kids are the proverbial cannon fodder than patriotism.

On the other hand, I think Vilsack was spot on when he said, "And small-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated." I have written about that here.

Klein, on the other hand, struck me as an arrogant urbanite, as when he replied to Vilsack's comment about persistent poverty: "Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?" Is Klein suggesting that we shouldn't care about the links between place and poverty just because relatively few people are affected? Is he saying that rural people--especially poor rural people--aren't worthy of government attention and assistance? If we look at sheer numbers, of course, urban areas will always look more important and more worthy of our concern and intervention. But doesn't every person count? I am reminded of Martha Nussbaum's assertion that "problems cannot be ignored or postponed on the grounds that they affect only a small number of people." (Frontiers of Justice, p. 100)

Here's another recent piece about farm subsidies and their downsides, this one by Mark Bittman of the New York Times. In his call to change, but not end, agricultural subsidies, Bittman leads with this powerful paragraph:
Agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.
He goes on to argue that farm subsidy funds could be more sensibly spent to:
• Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track.

• Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need.

• Save more farmland from development.

• Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.

• Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms — big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow — can become more competitive with agribusiness.

Bittman contends that spending this way could "encourage the development of the kind of agriculture we need, one that prioritizes caring for the land, the people who work it and the people who need the real food that’s grown on it."

Sounds like a win-win to me. Here's a related story about a new generation of youngish farmers oriented to small farms and sustainable practices. They sound like just the sort of folks I'd like the USDA to be supporting, not least in order to make the fruits of their labor affordable to those outside the upper middle class.


Jen Wickens said...

I appreciate that Secretary Vilsack spoke up in defense of rural America, but I don't believe that supporting the current funding scheme for farm subsidies will do anything for those constituents he purports to care so much about. Farm subsidies help agribusiness and, as Mark Bittman so aptly points out, are a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. Unless the subsidies are tied back to the rural economy, they won't have a positive effect on rural communities. Instead, they will continue to destroy the local economies of rural places by promoting and perpetuating farm consolidation and conglomeratization.

Jon di Cristina said...

I definitely agree with the notion that we should change - but not abolish - farm subsidies. As both Jen and Mark Bittman mention, they currently benefit agribusiness at the expense of the public, but I still agree with the premise that government should subsidize agriculture in some form. It's not about market control. It's about creating a healthier population. Healthy eating shouldn't be limited to people who can afford to shop at the Co-op.