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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/ 8/2011

Vilsack: ‘I took it as a slam on rural America’

By Ezra Klein

Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a “usda.gov” address. “Secretary Vilsack read your blog post ‘Why we still need cities’ over the weekend, and he has some thoughts and reflections, particularly about the importance of rural America,” it said. A call was set for a little later in the day. I think it’s safe to say Vilsack didn’t like the post. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion about rural America, subsidies and values follows.

Ezra Klein: Let’s talk about the post.

Tom Vilsack: 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.

EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?

TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.

The other thing is that people don’t understand is how difficult farming is. There are really three different kinds of farmers. Of the 2.1 million people who counted as farmers, about 1.3 million of them live in a farmstead in rural America. They don’t really make any money from their operation. Then there are 600,000 people who, if you ask them what they do for a living, they’re farmers. They produce more than $10,000 but less than $250,000 in sales. Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. And those are the folks for whom I’m trying to figure out how to diversify income opportunities, help them spread out into renewable fuel sources. And then the balance of farmers, roughly 200,000 to 300,000, are commercial operations, and they do pretty well, particularly when commodity prices are high. But they have a tremendous amount of capital at risk. And they’re aging at a rapid rate, with 37 percent over 65. Who’s going to replace those folks?

EK: You keep saying that rural Americans are good and decent people, that they work hard and participate in their communities. But no one is questioning that. The issue is that people who live in cities are also good people. People who live in exurbs work hard and mow their lawns. So what does the character of rural America have to do with subsidies for rural America?

TV: It is an argument. There is a value system that’s important to support. If there’s not economic opportunity, we can’t utilize the resources of rural America. I think it’s a complicated discussion and it does start with the fact that these are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated. When you spend 6 or 7 percent of your paycheck for groceries and people in other countries spend 20 percent, that’s partly because of these farmers.

EK: My understanding of why I pay 6 or 7 percent of my paycheck for food and people in other countries pay more is that I’m richer than people in other countries, my paycheck is bigger. Further, my understanding is that a lot of these subsidies don’t make my food cheaper so much as they increase the amount of it that comes from America. If we didn’t have a tariff on Brazilian sugar cane, for instance, my food would be less expensive. If we didn’t subsidize our corn, we’d import it from somewhere else.

TV: Corn and ethanol subsidies are one small piece of this. I admit and acknowledge that over a period of time, those subsidies need to be phased out. But it doesn’t make sense for us to have a continued reliance on a supply of oil where whenever there is unrest in another part of the world, gasoline prices jump up. We need a renewable fuel industry that’s more than corn-based, of course, and there are a whole series of great opportunities here. But as soon as we reduced subsidizes for biodiesel, we lost 12,000 jobs there. So if you create a cliff, you’re going to create significant disruption and end, for a while, our ability to move beyond oil. And keep in mind that the Department of Agriculture has moved, for years, to reduce our spending. We cut $4 billion in crop insurance and put that to deficit reduction. So we are making proposals to get these things in line. But a lot of our money goes to conservation, and goes to some of those 600,000 farmers who are barely making it.

EK: Let me go back to this question of character. You said again that this is a value system that’s important to support, that this conversation begins with the fact that these people are good and hardworking. But I come from a suburb. The people I knew had good values. My mother and father are good and hardworking people. But they don’t get subsidized because they’re good and hardworking people.

TV: I think the military service piece of this is important. It’s a value system that instilled in them. But look: I grew up in a city. My parents would think there was something wrong with America if they knew I was secretary of agriculture. So I’ve seen both sides of this. And small-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated. They feel they do a great service for America. 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.<

EK: But the way we show various professions respect in this country is to increase pay. It sounds to me like the policy you’re suggesting here is to subsidize the military by subsidizing rural America. Why not just increase military pay? Do you believe that if there was a substantial shift in geography over the next 15 years, that we wouldn’t be able to furnish a military?

TV: I think we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do. When’s the last time we thanked a farmer for the fact that only 6 or 7 percent of our paycheck goes to food? We talk about innovation and these guys have been extraordinarily innovative. We talk about trade deficits and agriculture has a surplus.

EK: I feel like I hear a lot of paeans to the good people of rural America. I feel like politics is thick with tributes to farmers and to the heartland -- and that’s fine with me. Which isn’t to say I doubt what you’re telling me. But I guess I’d offer a hypothesis: Some of the frustration you hear is because of the subsidies that go to rural America. If rural America wasn’t getting these subsidies but was flourishing, they’d get more of the respect you’re saying they deserve. But as long as they’re heavily subsidized, people are going to feel that there’s something wrong.

TV: I don’t know if it’s that. I think one of the reasons that there’s a safety net for American farmers is that we don’t really want to be so dependent on other countries for our food. How much more do we spend on the military in order to protect our ability to get oil? I make the same argument on immigration: One reason we need immigration reform is that 50 percent to 75 percent of our food is, at some point or another, touched by immigrant hands. Growing our own food is important. That’s where I come from in my attitude that there should at least be some acknowledgment of the role that farmers and ranchers play in our country. You may be right that politicians speak up for these folks, but I have a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them.

By Ezra Klein  | March 8, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
 
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Comments

Vilsack cannot be ignorant of the fact that agricultural subsidies go overwhelmingly to agribusiness and not to "family farmers" of any scale. So since he can't be ignorant, he's just lying, like other proponents of the farm subsidy boondoggle.

Posted by: labonnes | March 8, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

You know, I feel very unappreciated. Why don't we subsidize writers? That way books would cost only 6 percent of our paycheck.

Is he serious about this? I want in on that pay-for-values stuff. I write good books with great values!

Posted by: KathyF | March 8, 2011 11:01 AM | Report abuse

As a reader, I love that the Secretary of Agriculture is willing to take time to provide a response to the ideas presented here.

However, it dosen't seem like this is at all a rebuttal to your argument about the wealth generating power of cities and the irony that our Government is constructed to subsidize rural living.

It seems more like a plea that we be nicer in our rhetoric towards rural America. If all city-folk have to do is make rural people feel appreciated...and in return we can eliminate the mortgage insterest deduction and farm subsidies...I say it's a deal.

Posted by: Mazzi455 | March 8, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Considering how much of the media narrative suggests that city dwellers are not Real Americans and don't have good, decent values, so I think we should get a slice of these Hurt Feelings Subsidies.

Posted by: martown | March 8, 2011 11:04 AM | Report abuse

Wow. Vilsack is a bigger jerk than I thought, and I say that as a person who grew up rural. You know what I constantly heard from the rural people of character that he wants to keep shoveling money to: denials of the fact they only existed because of socialism, and profound resentment of everyone else.

Posted by: flounder2 | March 8, 2011 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I can't tell if Vilsack is really this dumb, or he just feels obliged politically to say this stuff. Really, they don't feel appreciated enough? That's what it takes to qualify for subsidies these days? They have good values (and the people in cities don't?)?

I'd like it more if he'd just say "Look, the US Senate systematically advantages farm states. That's why we subsidize them." No need to cover it up with these awful arguments about values, the military and the price of food.

Posted by: jfcarro | March 8, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

I think the discussion of what we're subsidizing and why is an important one. Thanks for the insightful interview.
The next step would be to clarify what we're trying to achieve with these subsidies. Are our subsidies doing what we want them to do? Is there a more efficient way? Are they producing secondary effects on society that might be more harmful in the long run?

Posted by: mschol17 | March 8, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Hilarious. If his intention was to "boost" rural America in the eyes of the readers, he accomplished just the opposite. And it sounds to me that many of those 44% of the military who come from rural America are doing so to escape the rampant poverty. Shame the only escape many will of them will find is dying far from home. But it's "for our freedoms" I guess. So there's that.

Posted by: Hieronymous | March 8, 2011 11:13 AM | Report abuse

I think people in rural america feel that DC, NYC, LA etc are very distant and that they do not have as much of a voice as people from cities.

American people from rural and city communities are good hard workers. But that's not a reason to provide a subsidy. A reason to provide a subsidy is to keep food production (as we know it) in America. And that's a good argument. But I wish Secretary Vilsack would be up front about the argument he's making.

btw. until my late 20s I lived in such populous locations as a town of 700, and a city of 25,000.

Posted by: ideallydc | March 8, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

i think it might be hard for people from cities to get a sense of what rural american farming is, now.
when driving through the central valley in california...it is hardly a rockwellian image of small family farms, with grange meetings.
it looks like american industrialized farming has nothing to do with "nature."
this may seem like a small thing, but in the minds of many people, i dont think it is.
i may be mistaken about this...but it seems like heavy, highly industrialized farming.
i think they bring in huge trucks to transport bees from other places, to even pollinate the immensity of the crops there.
and going across the united states, looking out through train windows through miles and miles of corn or sunflowers...i kept wondering if it was all genetically modified and mystified...and if monarch butterflies fell in the fields, because they got sick on the corn.
i think the average person, (i might be wrong about this) doesnt think of "rural america," like "little house on the prairie," in a laura ingalls wilder book.... of hale and hearty folk, with pies on the window sill in the summertime.
.they think of archer daniels, and monsanto, and colony collapse disorder....and kellogg's cereals...and the industrial abuse of chickens and pigs....
i think many people distrust agriculture in america.
they wonder about the corporate control....the abuses, and what is systemically in the crops we eat.
going up through the central valley...one of the horrors of the trip, is an area that extends for more than a mile, of cows that seem to be waiting by thousands, to be slaughtered. it feels like a concentration camp for cows.
and i think this is a lot of the impression now, that people have of farming and rural america.
not an apple orchard with a white frame house.
but miles and miles of sophisticated and soulless fields, with super-resistant crops that could be hazardous to your health, and the agricultural industry and lobbies have been ABLE TO AVOID LABELLING IF THEY ARE GENETICALLY MODIFIED.
i may be wrong, but i think the average person, who doesnt live in these rural areas, wonders about the agricultural lobbies, the methods of growing things, what kind of seeds they are using, how it all affects our health, what is the role of migrant workers, and many other questions, that make people uneasy...
i may be wrong, but i think that many people wonder about all of this, and the image of the individual farmer, in dungarees, laboring in a field, has been replaced by the website for monsanto and food companies that have slathered us in high fructose.....it seems like we know little about our food....
and this is what has replaced the image of "rural america."
just my opinion, of course.

Posted by: jkaren |

Posted by: jkaren | March 8, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

I don't know why we need to "keep the food production in America." Are you nervous when you buy foreign food?

Posted by: jfcarro | March 8, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

What a ridiculous set of answers to some interesting questions. The key problem is that the mystique of "rural america" serves as a cover for the gigantic subsidies to agribusiness, which Vilsack clearly knows but won't acknowledge. This is just a joke and shows why the department of agriculture should be run by someone with a decently balanced perspective and forward-looking agenda.

Posted by: snargy2 | March 8, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Two more things I'd add:

1) Better-functioning cities would actually help *preserve* rural America. Vilsack has surely seen millions upon millions of acres of farmland gobbled up by sprawl during his adult life. And the suburbs and exurbs just keep on spreading.

Doesn't he realize that if cities were better and more densely built, then more people would live in cities and inner suburbs, and the suburbs and exurbs wouldn't extend nearly as far out?

2) Vilsack should also realize that many of the subsidies to rural life that he's so high on, don't subsidize struggling but hardworking farm families. When a single farm can receive a half-million dollars in farm subsidies, that's not about rural character or any BS like that. When he's ready to push a limit of, say, $100,000 on the subsidies that any one farm can receive, let me know.

Posted by: rt42 | March 8, 2011 11:22 AM | Report abuse

"But as soon as we reduced subsidizes for biodiesel, we lost 12,000 jobs there"

The jobs shouldn't have been there in the first place, and the money is now released to create activity in other sectors.

The problem here is the original intervention into the market, which brought resources into the wrong industry. Now those 12,000 need to find new work, and any capital they were paired with was basically a waste, a malinvestment.

Posted by: justin84 | March 8, 2011 11:23 AM | Report abuse

This guy's a Senator? And he scheduled an interview with you to refute your point, without having a point of his own??

I figured the old, confused, doddering types of Senators had people who would brief them and prevent them from looking stupid. Guess not...

Posted by: JkR- | March 8, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Ezra. As a conservative Republican I have to say that you are right and Secretary Vilsack is wrong.

This justification for subsidies is pure B.S.

"It is an argument. There is a value system that’s important to support."

Here's the truth:

""It is an argument. There's rural voters that we need to bribe given the structure of the Senate and the Presidential nominations process."

Posted by: jnc4p | March 8, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

"So if you create a cliff, you’re going to create significant disruption and end, for a while, our ability to move..."

The wisest thing he said. It was in the context of oil, but he's alluding to creating any kind of sudden shock.

The rest of it though was so much public relations. I don't think it's rural values that drive people to the military so much as the G.I. bill and a lack of other, better opportunities; the military is in many ways welfare for poor, uneducated young people.

Posted by: arm3 | March 8, 2011 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Rural America provides a lot of kids for the military due to the military education summary. Same as for poor inner city kids, who also send larger proportion of their kids to the military, its the only way they can afford college. The other similarity to inner city kids, often the military is the only obvious path forward. The farm typically passes to the oldest male child, as the farm barely supports one family. There is nothing for the other children to do but to move on. That's also why Visalak's numbers on one third of farmers being over 65 are irrelevant. It's pretty typical of the progression - an older patriarch being supported by the chosen heir. The numbers would be different, had not the non-heir family members already moved on to other opportunities.

Posted by: truthwillout | March 8, 2011 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Let's substitute "plumbers" for "farmers" on a couple of these quotes and see how they read:

"wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of plumbing, where I hear people in urban America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do. When’s the last time we thanked a plumber for the fact that only 6 or 7 percent of our paycheck goes towards water line maintenance? We talk about innovation and these guys have been extraordinarily innovative. We talk about trade deficits and plumbing has a surplus."

...

"TV: I don’t know if it’s that. I think one of the reasons that there’s a safety net for American plumbers is that we don’t really want to be so dependent on other countries for our running water. How much more do we spend on the military in order to protect our ability to get working toilets? I make the same argument on immigration: One reason we need immigration reform is that 50 percent to 75 percent of our pipe fitting is, at some point or another, touched by immigrant hands. Flushing our own toliets is important. That’s where I come from in my attitude that there should at least be some acknowledgment of the role that plumbers and pipe fitters play in our country. You may be right that politicians speak up for these folks, but I have a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them."

Posted by: jnc4p | March 8, 2011 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I grew up in Nebraska and now live in a small Iowa city and I agree with Ezra about this. But it is not about character per se, it is about the incentives that subsidies provide. Rural folks do work hard and percentage wise have a greater participation in small business, they understand the market very well.

But the subsidies we work within are just sick. We have a corn and soil monoculture that makes no sense environmentally and biologically. Livestock production is sucking our aquifers dry in the grossly inefficient production of protein. Feedlots are getting more efficient every day in producing antibiotic resistant disease.

I might be able to spend just 7 percent of my income on food but I am betting I would have diabetes and metabolic syndrome within a couple years on that diet. I do spend more than 25 percent of my income on food because I happen to prefer healthy, non-processed food that is not subsidized. And that is what I spend right in the middle of America's ag belt.

And this all comes back to the small-state bias in the Senate. Republicans have leveraged that bias into a complete stranglehold of all legislation by pandering to rural interests. It is sickening to hear Vilsack, my former Democratic governor, defend the autocrats of rural industrial junk food as the victims of urban prejudice when the reality is our government enables a huge transfer of wealth to them.

The real base of the republican party is small town and rural small businessmen. Small businesses in rural area usually have few real competitors, profit for them is more a matter of rent-seeking that competitive efficiency. That is what they have in common with the masters of Wall Street. Together they control the Senate and control the American political agenda. And that has nothing to do with a free market and everything to do with a complete corruption of the market.

Posted by: BobFred | March 8, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

That should have said military subsidy for education, not summary. The point being, its not the values instilled by rural families - its the value offered by the military towards education, coupled with the lack of opportunity in rural america to join the farm industry. There is only so much land out there, and it supports only so many farms. One of the reasons there are so many farms that don't provide a decent income is that the larger farms have been overly divided to the kids over the years. For the record, I grew up in rural Idaho and have seen this first hand.

Posted by: truthwillout | March 8, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

As a longtime resident of a big cities, I think I get what Vilsack is saying. Wall Street doesn't produce anything of value, per se, yet they too get subsidies in the form of tax cuts and government bailouts. Similarly, the artists that city livers adore so much also often rely on government grants. Farmers produce much of the huge amounts of food city dwellers buy at grocery stores and restaurants - which is much more essential than a derivative -and yet there isn't necessarily any thought or appreciation to where it comes from. I've been at dinners where the table orders expensive dish after expensive dish, with all the credit going to the restaurant and celebrity chef, and little to no thought going to where that food came from in the first place. We just assume we can get a pear or veal steak anytime we want it, with no thought to anything else. Professions in cities seem to becoming increasingly removed from the making of tangible products - what exactly does a regional manager of acquisitions for Aflac produce for me? - whereas products like chicken breast and iPods are just assumed to come from "somewhere else". Cities certainly consume en masse the products that rural communities produce, especially with the high demand for organic and natural products (ever been at a Whole Foods in NYC on a Thursday night?) and there should be some acknowledgement of that. I also think that anyone who has lived in cities long enough knows that there is a certain amount of pride and even arrogance that comes with it - that you are more worldly than the hicks back in the rural world - even though you might be the first to cherish an organic white cheddar from Vermont or expensive Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. The point is rural communities support much of our consumption (and military) and that should be acknowledged, if not subsidized.

Posted by: workmonkey | March 8, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

As a longtime resident of a big cities, I think I get what Vilsack is saying. Wall Street doesn't produce anything of value, per se, yet they too get subsidies in the form of tax cuts and government bailouts. Similarly, the artists that city livers adore so much also often rely on government grants. Farmers produce much of the huge amounts of food city dwellers buy at grocery stores and restaurants - which is much more essential than a derivative -and yet there isn't necessarily any thought or appreciation to where it comes from. I've been at dinners where the table orders expensive dish after expensive dish, with all the credit going to the restaurant and celebrity chef, and little to no thought going to where that food came from in the first place. We just assume we can get a pear or veal steak anytime we want it, with no thought to anything else. Professions in cities seem to becoming increasingly removed from the making of tangible products - what exactly does a regional manager of acquisitions for Aflac produce for me? - whereas products like chicken breast and iPods are just assumed to come from "somewhere else". Cities certainly consume en masse the products that rural communities produce, especially with the high demand for organic and natural products (ever been at a Whole Foods in NYC on a Thursday night?) and there should be some acknowledgement of that. I also think that anyone who has lived in cities long enough knows that there is a certain amount of pride and even arrogance that comes with it - that you are more worldly than the hicks back in the rural world - even though you might be the first to cherish an organic white cheddar from Vermont or expensive Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley. The point is rural communities support much of our consumption (and military) and that should be acknowledged, if not subsidized. Just imagine the uproar if a city Starbucks had to go even one day with Soy milk.

Posted by: workmonkey | March 8, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

"...90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America."

I grew up in rural America. I now live in a large city.

Rural counties supply most of our military because it is one of the only ways to get ahead without a college education, which most can't afford. It has little to do with rural people being more patriotic or have superior values. In fact as a city dweller, I find it offensive that Vilisack implies that rural dwellers have superior values to urban dwellers. If anything I find rural people are less open minded and more prone to fear tactics by politicians than urban dwellers.

If rural people think they are under-appreciated, I find them grossly over represented in Congress when states like Wyoming - with fewer people than Washington DC - has one Representative and two Senators to DC's big zero.

Posted by: Trakker | March 8, 2011 11:53 AM | Report abuse

"I think one of the reasons that there’s a safety net for American farmers is that we don’t really want to be so dependent on other countries for our food."

Of course - all farming in America would dry up without government funding, and foreign countries are all run by superhero villians just itching to watch Americans starve rather than profit through trade.

"How much more do we spend on the military in order to protect our ability to get oil?"

We spend quite a lot - then again, there are all sorts of restrictions on production here, liberals want us to use less oil anyway, and our military power is a large part of why other countries might not want to trade with us voluntarily.

"I make the same argument on immigration: One reason we need immigration reform is that 50 percent to 75 percent of our food is, at some point or another, touched by immigrant hands."

So? What, are immigrants dirty or something?

"When’s the last time we thanked a farmer for the fact that only 6 or 7 percent of our paycheck goes to food?"

Thanks.

Can you take your hand out of my pocket now?

Posted by: justin84 | March 8, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

I'm a conservative, but believe this is an area where conservatives and liberals could find common ground. Agriculture subsidies may favor Republican-leaning constituencies, but they are certainly not 'conservative' in terms of political ideology.

Every day on my way to work I pass a farm, the fields of which have been dormant for years. That's because the 'farmer' gets a check from the government to not plant them. Instead, he uses a small portion of the land for his cattle to roam, and the rest never gets planted.

This happens all across America, and it's bothered this conservative for a long time that our government has messed with the normal markets of supply and demand for food by paying land-owners to NOT farm their land. How much more abundant might the supply of food become (and the lower prices that would come with it) if we simply let the regular forces of supply and demand determine how much of our land is used for farming, instead of a bureaucrat in D.C.?

So I'll tell you what, Ezra....let's eliminate farm subsidies that pay farmers not to farm, and at the same time let's eliminate the idiotic energy subsidies that try to get people to use 'alternative' energy sources that are neither as abundant nor as efficient as oil-based energy. Let's let the market regulate the natural supply/demand & prices for ag products, as well as for energy products.

Deal?

Posted by: dbw1 | March 8, 2011 11:55 AM | Report abuse

dbw1 - I'm not sure that's entirely true about the dormant farm you talk about. The days of allotments are pretty much over. He may get a check not to plant the farm for conservation reserve purposes, or maybe it is lying fallow for now because of how he does his crop rotation. He may also be outside of an area that receives crop insurance for whatever reason. Or maybe he just doesn't want to plant it.

Also, it may surprise you that food is incredibly abundant in this country and is probably about as cheap as you could hope for. The government does induce price support by encouraging grain exports, but the alternative would be for the price on grains to fall unacceptably low with the result that many farmers would simply get out of the business.

Paul Krugman had a nice piece on the relationship between grain prices and bread the other day. He presented a back-of-the-envelope calculation that the cost of flour for a loaf of bread is around $ 0.10 and yet the bread costs ~$2. This is because the real cost in foods is in labor, shipping, packaging, storage, etc. In other words, the value added to the raw material.

Posted by: willows1 | March 8, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

correction for my comment above

Small businesses in rural area usually have few real competitors, profit for them is more a matter of rent-seeking THAN competitive efficiency. That is what they have in common with the masters of Wall Street. Together they control the Senate and control the American political agenda.

Posted by: BobFred | March 8, 2011 12:16 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I spend a lot more than 7% of my paycheck on groceries.

I would guess there are a lot of Americans who are closer to a third world family than an "average U.S. consumer unit" from the latest Bureau of Labor survey.

Posted by: zifmia7 | March 8, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

"But the subsidies we work within are just sick. We have a corn and soil monoculture that makes no sense environmentally and biologically. Livestock production is sucking our aquifers dry in the grossly inefficient production of protein. Feedlots are getting more efficient every day in producing antibiotic resistant disease.

I might be able to spend just 7 percent of my income on food but I am betting I would have diabetes and metabolic syndrome within a couple years on that diet. I do spend more than 25 percent of my income on food because I happen to prefer healthy, non-processed food that is not subsidized. And that is what I spend right in the middle of America's ag belt."


Bravo. This is a gloriously concise summary or everything that is wrong with our agricultural policy. We subsidize the production of faux foods that make us sick (like HFCS) and then the policies are defended with a lot of claptrap about attacking family farmers, their work ethic, and their way of life.

USDA subsidies and policies for years have supported dead end pursuits like bio-diesel, and corporate processors of modified inedible corn and other commodities. We should either re-target these subsidies to promote healthier and more sustainable products and methods, or simply end them all together.

But thanks to the way the US Senate (and also the electoral college) is organized, that's a tall order.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 8, 2011 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, there is so much wrong in what you say...

Yes, your parents' suburban life is subsidized. Heavily. And you know it.

"But the way we show various professions respect in this country is to increase pay." So it's the best of all possible worlds, and farmers and teachers don't get respect because they don't deserve respect?

I don't like Vilsack's response, but I also find your commentary about rural life and farming both ignorant and offensive. Grow a garden that supplies one week (2%) of your annual nutritional needs. Then maybe you can talk about it. Here's a hint - it'll probably take you longer to do so successfully than it took you to earn your degree.

Really, you think you only pay 6 to 7% of your income for food because you're just totally awesome? Ever read about the pressures that created, say, William Jennings Bryan?

Posted by: GBMcM | March 8, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

sure we don't need crop supports in a warming world? look at yields last year, australia's and russia's droughts, canada's weather problems. cut tariffs, definitely, but i don't think it'd be wise to completely shutdown ag subsidies.

also, ethanol's an oil hedge, albeit an overly expensive one and certainly not an ideal hedge but it is a temporary hedge, for, at this moment in time, we and the rest of world are hyper-dependent on oil.

ethanol could be extremely valuable if oil goes a lot higher.

we have a groupthink problem when it comes to ag subisidies; hopefully vilsack's at the least injected some balance into the issue. (food prices are up because of the weather & the price of oil.)

Posted by: jackjudge4000yahoocom | March 8, 2011 12:35 PM | Report abuse

GBMcM - "Grow a garden that supplies one week (2%) of your annual nutritional needs. Then maybe you can talk about it. Here's a hint - it'll probably take you longer to do so successfully than it took you to earn your degree."

Potatoes: Cheap, abundant, very easy to grow. Keep well. Lots of calories.

Other gardeners always disdain my growing abundant amounts of potatoes because "they just taste like store-bought potatoes", but my potatoes never go to waste and they are the only thing that comes out of the garden with very many calories to speak of.

Posted by: willows1 | March 8, 2011 12:36 PM | Report abuse

dbw1:

This liberal will take your deal if there's a carbon tax which correctly prices the externalities caused by fossil fuel energy.

Agreed?

Posted by: TXAndy | March 8, 2011 12:44 PM | Report abuse

"Considering how much of the media narrative suggests that city dwellers are not Real Americans and don't have good, decent values, so I think we should get a slice of these Hurt Feelings Subsidies."

That should have been Ezra's response to Vilsack and then Ezra should have walked out on him.

Posted by: lauren2010 | March 8, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

I do agree with Ezra, but I must also say that the glory of big agribusiness is not all that it seems. I grew up on a farm in North Dakota. You might call it a family farm. My dad does basically everything by himself and with one worker. My dad makes roughly $30,000 a year from subsidies. Nowhere near the half million people are talking about in the comments. Yet, my dad makes enough money a year to finance putting 2 kids through public universities, health insurance, and a fleet of vehicles. Why? Because he is a business minded person. Farmers who are well off arent just well off because of subsidies, they work hard just like people in cities - if not harder and they have risks everyday that can determine their yearly income. In the city, people collect their salaries that are GUARANTEED and go back to their suburban cookie cutter house. Farmers work 60+ hours a week, have to be a mechanic, commodity trader, accountant, and HR person daily. Rural America is flourishing. Countless agricultural innovations have been created in the Great Plains. There is a little company called Bobcat that was started in rural north dakota.. even today, more and more innovations are being created, testsed, and launched globally. Farmers are innovaters, businessmen, and spurring the American economy. Without subsidies though, would so many people be farming? no. My dad would have used his accounting degree and be working in a city. Its not possible to have a sustainable income from farming without subsidies. If there is a flood, tornado, what have you.. the entire income is GONE.

Posted by: americanINhungary | March 8, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, Ezra, for pushing back on Vilsack's fuzzy "heartland values" talk!

Posted by: Liz_B | March 8, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

First, well handled.

Second, Vilsack's comments do highlight a cultural gap in America. I'm sure that urban folks don't appreciate rural folks as much as we should - but the reverse is also true, and the political system effectively gives far greater proportional representation to rural residents.

Third, if Vilsack had been calling me, I'd have told him he was a hack and hung up.

Posted by: weiwentg | March 8, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Economic liberals should learn a thing from history and ask what would really happen if agricultural subsidies were eliminated. Remember what happened when we "liberalized" the manufacturing and financial industries?

Rural America has been experiencing serious population decline for generations. This is a problem. It's a problem because cities become more congested and because rural communities decline economically and culturally.

Yes, most of these subsidies go to "agribusiness" - but agribusiness employs a huge number of people in rural communities. If we eliminate their subsidies, these people will not have jobs. Rural economies will decline, poverty in these areas will increase, and people will be forced to move to the city.

The solution is not to eliminate all subsidies, but to change the subsidies to produce more sensible, environmentally neutral crops and livestock. And this should be coupled with financial and economic support for rural communities to alleviate the social upheaval that economic liberalization creates.

Posted by: mastrasza | March 8, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

Vilsack's argument is inane. He is saying that we should reward rural people for their patriotism and work ethic with farm subsidies? It's totally incomprehensible, verging on the bizarre. I have to think that his response was intended for PR purposes and can't really have been serious.

Posted by: nickthap | March 8, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

The reason that so many of the people who join the military come from Rural areas is in his answer. With so few people able to make a living from farming (or quite frankly much else) there are no opportunities for those people. They join the Military to see the world, find some opportunity for advancement, and get the hell out of that little town they come from.

You can dress it up as duty or tradition, but the truth is if there was any opportunity there, people would stay.

Just look at Iowa for example. One of the reasons the population is both dropping and aging is because the vast majority of the state's college graduates leave for somewhere else, usually a city out of state to find the opportunity they cannot find at home.

The idea that anyone other than the large commercial farming operations is taking in more than a pittance of the subsidies is insane.

The truth is that the family farm that everyone has an image of in their mind no longer exists. My family has owned a farm in southern Illinois for over a century. My great grandfather ran it as a dairy and grain farm and it took all his (8) kids with at least 2 hired hands. One of my cousins runs it now as a grain only operation with as a part time business. In order to make ends meet he has another job.

In the county in rural Iowa I grew up in. there are less than a dozen farmers who control (own or lease) 50% or better of the farmland. there are of course small farmers, but most of them don't make enough to live on.

I left Iowa in the early 90's because it seemed like there was no opportunity for me. I regret leaving and would love to move back, but without the economic opportunities available out of state and mostly in large cities, I can't raise my family.

Posted by: powdermonkey | March 8, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

The Jeffersonian agrarian myth has been a handicap to America ever since Jefferson promulgated it. Vilsack's just offering up its modern incarnation.

You're going to hear the same kind of folksy "plain people" BS as the Iowa caucuses approach, but Rural America is methlab America and Percocet America, a land of Mountain Dew in baby bottles: scratch the surface, and you don't see the gentleman-farmer democrats that Jefferson imagined, but a first-world taste of third-world realities. That's why so many young people join the military.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | March 8, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

@dbw1 wrote:
"let's eliminate farm subsidies that pay farmers not to farm, and at the same time let's eliminate the idiotic energy subsidies that try to get people to use 'alternative' energy sources that are neither as abundant nor as efficient as oil-based energy.

Deal?"
.
As soon as the full costs associated with fossil fuel energy sources are reflected in the price, sure! They have a waste product and it's cost must be accounted for before you can compare them to renewable sources.

Posted by: rpixley220 | March 8, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

Also, Iowa and the other grain-belt states that get the lion's share of ag subsidies grow only corn and wheat, much of it for feed and ethanol. Other food growers, such as vegetable farmers in CA (who grow pretty much the entire country's supply of lettuce among other crops) receive really very little subsidy. However, they stay in business.

Posted by: nickthap | March 8, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, isn't it unkind to publish this interview, which makes Vilsack look like a blithering idiot?

Posted by: thehersch | March 8, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Another reason to look carefully at subsidies is the fact that they don't necessarily go to rural America. The Environmental Working Group (anti-subsidy) has a database of who gets what. In the Washington Post's ZIP code, there are 2 names: Benjamin Bradlee got $3500 between 1995 and 2009 and Donald Graham is listed as "farm owner." No knock on Bradlee or Graham, and I can't vouch for EWG's database, but type in any urban ZIP code and you'll be surprised how many of your neighbors are farmers.
http://farm.ewg.org/addrsearch.php?s=yup&zip=20071&z=See+Recipients

Posted by: crosspalms | March 8, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"My understanding of why I pay 6 or 7 percent of my paycheck for food and people in other countries pay more is that I’m richer than people in other countries, my paycheck is bigger. Further, my understanding is that a lot of these subsidies don’t make my food cheaper so much as they increase the amount of it that comes from America. If we didn’t have a tariff on Brazilian sugar cane, for instance, my food would be less expensive. If we didn’t subsidize our corn, we’d import it from somewhere else."

What mainstream journalist would ask a smart, detailed, informed, important, direct follow up question like that – and regularly?

It's so sad that what most people hear are these little soundbite questions with fundamentally unchallenged little soundbite answers.

Without the blogosphere we'd have almost nothing like what we get with people like Ezra Klein, Jonathan Chait, and Paul Krugman. It's been a huge step forward. Of course, what we should have are massive tax credits for the monumental positive externalities of serious analytic and investigative journalism.

I wish Ezra could design and moderate the presidential debates.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | March 8, 2011 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I love how he completely sidesteps your question about his measure of poverty. I don't doubt that quite a bit of poverty occurs in rural areas, but by emphasizing that "90% of high poverty counties" are in rural areas, he tries to cleverly make it seem as though the vast majority of poverty occurs outside cities. Never mind that most rural counties have far fewer people than urban counties. You caught him on this, and he sheepishly sidesteps the question, doesn't answer it, and moves onto something else.

Posted by: Isa8686 | March 8, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

What an odd interview. It's remarkable how awkward it gets when you don't take a politician's bland platitudes seriously and ask pointed follow up questions.

I think to Ezra's core audience, Vilsack comes off looking terrible here, but I don't think his yay-rural-values stuff is actually that remarkable in terms of pandering political blather. It seems more like the norm ...

Which makes it kind of sad, as Richard Serlin said in a comment above, that more journalists (or in a still-better world, ALL JOURNALISTS) don't make it a habit to push the issue and challenge this kind of junk.

Posted by: sanjait | March 8, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Wanna know what farm subsidies do?

They help elect Republicans to office. Wisconsin, for example, has several Republicans who have taken $100,000s of gvmt subsidies and now they are supporting Walker as he busts the unions.

Posted by: lauren2010 | March 8, 2011 4:11 PM | Report abuse

Shorter Vilsack: "Oh noes!!! Who will kill the Muslims if we don't give billions to ADM."

Truly pathetic.

Posted by: ibc0 | March 8, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Look, if every American city got 2-4 Senators, American politicians would pander to urban interests in a revolting fashion, but they don't, so we're treated to bromides about Heartland Values. Is it revolting? Of course. But it's baked into the cake.

Posted by: ibc0 | March 8, 2011 4:41 PM | Report abuse

The reason we subsidize farmers is because we're terrified of their anti-capitalist radicalism. They're only conservative today, unlike in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s (and beyond) because the government supports their industry and smooths the volatility of commodity prices.

Posted by: behaha | March 8, 2011 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Nice job Ezra. Confronting the smugness of the rural wholesomeness myth can never go unanswered by those that are beholding to those that exploit rural stereotypes most egregiously: the state and national Farm Bureau (insurance) organizations, major commodity group and subsidy recipients, and of course all manner of large agribusiness from the corn sweetener and ethanol giant ADM, to the private and incredibly powerful Cargil, the world's premier broker of grains.

About 20 percent of all those rural farmer value holders produce upwards of 80 percent of all agricultural sales. The remaining 80 percent of those value holders are working in nearby urban areas doing nonfarm jobs. They have to, the values they hold dear on the farm are not sufficient to maintain a household.

The irony is that there have been 30 years of concerted rural development sponsored in varying degrees by the USDA. And rural areas have fewer farmers, fewer citizens, struggling and declining counties, and the core public underpinnings of those rural value centers have long crumbled.

When you fail miserably at everything you did but enriching the rural rich, it is awfully arrogant to argue that you have been the loyal and faithful protector of rural culture. To the contrary, USDA policies have systematically accelerated rural declines.

Posted by: daveswen | March 8, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

It's sad that all Secretary Vilsack could do here is repeat the same platitudes about the salt-of-the-earth people who make up our rural areas, and how their widdle feewings are hurt by us mean ol' city slickers. He does manage to inadvertently expose other flaws in the system. After all, it sounds like in addition to corn, the other crop we're heavily subsidizing out in the country is our military. If that large a percentage of military recruits come from the farms and rural areas because there are few other economic opportunities, that's not a reason to send massive subsidies to these areas. It's a reason to reanalyze how we value military service in this country, and the best way to obtain recruits.

Posted by: turnageb | March 8, 2011 9:47 PM | Report abuse

There's a great website put out by the Environmental Working Group that uses the Freedom of Information Act to show the names of the individuals who receive farm subsidies, and how much they've received. It's an amazing website. In Champaign County, Illinois, where I live, the top recipient of government cash subsidies over the past 14 years is a Ms. Lo (I forget her first name), and she has received checks for $1.4 million over that period of time. The second largest recipient is Albert Lo (her husband), who has received $1.3 billion. Among the top recipients is ATSA Trust, which has received around $800,000. The recipients of "ATSA Trust" are the children of the aforementioned Lo couple. And here's the best part: Albert Lo isn't a farmer. He's a rich doctor. He just owns a whole lot of farm land.

American farm policy is a joke. It's about taking money from regular people, whether through higher taxes or higher costs at the grocery market, and giving the vast majority of that money to people who own farmland. Farmland here in central Illinois now runs around $7000 per acre. Over half of the farmland in Illinois is owned by non-farmers. Many farmers own over 1000 acres, and some much more. Do the arithmetic: $7000 per acre times 1000 acres is 7 million dollars. So, when the government gives tax dollars away for agricultural subsidies, the great majority of it goes to multi-millionaires. That's the way it is. I'm not exaggerating, and I'm not making complicated arguments. Despite the political rhetoric, the effect of U.S. agricultural subsidies is to give money to very wealthy people who happen to sometimes wear overalls. It's a very, very bad joke.

And don't get me started with sugar policy. Fully one-fifth of the sugar produced in the U.S. is produced by a company owned by one family: The Fanjul family in Florida. U.S. sugar policy raises the domestic sugar price by about a dime a pound. Think about that: ten cents a pound, and one-fifth of the total production of sugar comes from one family. The Fanjuls, because of their vast amounts of political power, actual receive HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS of dollars from U.S. consumers each year that they would not receive were it not for U.S. agricultural policy.

Last thing: farm yields have soared not near so much because of the hard work of farmers, but rather because of the hard work of crop scientists and seed geneticists. So let's knock off all of the farmer-worship. Farmers are people, like teachers, like plumbers, like college professors, like factory workers. Some are very good people, some are very bad people, and most are somewhere in between. To argue that they should be subsidized because they are the last bastion of American values? Lord, lord, lord.

Posted by: dsbulloc | March 8, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

groceries might cost 6 to 7 percent of net pay, but what's the actual figure when you account for the amount of federal tax paid that ends up in farmers pockets? or is the 6 to 7 percent figure already including that?

Posted by: cannona3 | March 8, 2011 10:27 PM | Report abuse

Did he really say that rural America accounts for 16% of the population but only 1 in 12 (~8%) of the jobs? Are rural folk really 3 times more likely as city folk to serve in the military yet half as likely to serve in the workforce?!?!

Posted by: mpbowlr | March 8, 2011 10:44 PM | Report abuse

I am from rural America, a small town in south central Kansas to be exact, and I was raised on a third generation family farm that grows wheat and milo as well as raise about 50 head of cattle. To be honest, the thing that keeps our small farming operation afloat IS help from the subsidies that we receive.

A vast majority of Americans have never been in rural America, and there is a major disconnect between the farmer and the eater. Many "city folk" just don't understand our way of life. But if you don't understand it, don't criticize it. I would like to challenge anyone who reads this comment to go visit a rural area, tour a family farm, talk with the people who live there. THEN you'll understand. More than likely you will have an abundance of people who are willing to talk to you about the agricultural industry and how it affects their lives, as well as how it probably affects yours.

If you eat, agriculture concerns you. If you wear clothing, agriculture concerns you. PLEASE support the people who greatly influence your lives and get nothing but flack for it. It doesn't matter whether the apple you eat is organic or the clothes you wear are designer, these are still forms of agriculture and they deserve your support.

And, I think it is definitely important to note that farmers have feelings too.

Posted by: jordanmh | March 8, 2011 11:49 PM | Report abuse


The adjustable rate mortgage that I had before had me nearly to the brink of bankruptcy because of the never-ending payment increases. Now I have 3.18% fixed rate. I would absolutely recommend "123 Mortgage Refinance" I worked with to anyone I know planning to refinance mortgage.

Posted by: lindahudson555 | March 9, 2011 4:23 AM | Report abuse

Workmonkey: "The point is rural communities support much of our consumption (and military) and that should be acknowledged, if not subsidized"
-- Except that they don't, generally speaking, support more of our consumption than anywhere else. People in rural areas produce less per capita, and there are fewer people in them.

Jordanmh--
I think you're exaggerating when you suggest that most people have never been to rural America. And in so-doing, you contribute to the perception that many people from urban and suburban people have of rural people as being perpetually aggrieved-- "city folk just don't understand our way of life"-- as though it were the duty of "city folk" to subsidize a unique way of life that constantly seems to look down on them and assert that it is the only real america. You know, the one with "values we need to support."

Of course farmers have feelings; but they aren't the only ones.


Posted by: adamiani | March 9, 2011 5:44 AM | Report abuse

This had to be one of the most idiotic things I've ever read. Between Klein and Vilsack, I couldn't tell who was the bigger, self-serving moron.

Posted by: steve_tsouloufis | March 9, 2011 7:31 AM | Report abuse

I notice vilsack couldn't be bothered to address the fact that America's Rural states all take in way more money from the US than they pay in taxes...in other words they are all welfare queens, but since they are largely white they get a free pass to express their racism at others.

Posted by: hippie1367 | March 9, 2011 9:56 AM | Report abuse

That was IT?

Vilsack had all day to think up arguments about why rural living should be subsidized and this is what he came up with?

Because they are really nice folks?

Posted by: smitje27713 | March 9, 2011 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I harbor no ill-will towards farmers or their values.

However, I have the same issue here as I do with Tea Party protesters holding "government get your socialist hands off my Medicare" signs. These folks need to be made aware of how much they depend on the federal government and how silly they sound with their anti-government anti-tax rhetoric.

Posted by: rich36 | March 9, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

This blog post and the comments are scary. We have a world food system under stress and some of you are acting like farmers are irrelevant? What subsidies are you talking about? Tell me, what subsidies? Are you talking about what the EWG has on their website? Which of those are conservation improvement funds the farmer had to match? It was the public that said, "hey farmer, we don't want you to farm anymore unless you build these conservation structures.". These structures didn't make a farmer a dime but kept them in compliance with the law. Ok, so are the EWG numbers commodity loans? Do you even know what they are? Those are loans farmers get against their crop so they can pay their creditors at harvest time and hope the price goes up on the crop later in the year. The price at harvest is usually the worst all year. Those loans which are paid back with interest show up as "subsidies" but I don't call a loan, repaid, with interest a subsidy. so what subsidies are you talking about?

Posted by: Mopper | March 9, 2011 2:27 PM | Report abuse

This had to be one of the most idiotic things I've ever read. Between Klein and Vilsack, I couldn't tell who was the bigger, self-serving moron.

Posted by: steve_tsouloufis | March 9, 2011 7:31 AM | Report abuse

You have it right Steve.
Shame on WP for allowing Klein to write such drivel to pass for public disscusion of issues in our time.

Posted by: dhanna2 | March 9, 2011 3:12 PM | Report abuse

If there were any justice in the world Tom Vilsack would offer his resignation and it would be accepted. If that's the best he can come up with, let's eliminate the Department of Agriculture. This type of special pleading could be applied to any -fill in the blank- occupation or profession. The proportion of the population in rural America has been declining for almost 200 years. 1850 - 80% of Americans were farmers; 1900 - 50% were farmers, today less than 2%. Frankly subsidizing agriculture or industry to preserve jobs is hideously expensive. Estimates are it costs 140K to subsidize each manufacturing job, at a time the average American earn roughly 30K. As Ezra points out subsidies for agriculture also diminish the growth of economies in poorer countries.

Posted by: aj1111 | March 9, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Shame on you, Tom. If that's the best you can do to defend rural people against urban jingoism, you ought to step down and let somebody who actually knows and cares about rural America run the USDA.

Posted by: walt828 | March 9, 2011 5:17 PM | Report abuse

There are a lot of good comments (and a few not so good) but the thing I've noticed is that none of them (I tried to read them all but couldn't, so maybe I'm wrong) address the unspeakable issue in America: (social) class.

People in rural areas are looked down upon--and they know it. As long as they feel they are not a fully-respected part of society they will never stop their rhetoric about being a bastion of values, voting for politicians who vote to gut the greater national interest(s), etc., and no amount of moralistic arguing will change their minds--and why should it? They have a right to get whatever they can out of the system, as long as we "enjoy" unenlightened political leadership, and they are made to feel like second-class citizens.

Posted by: newslooker32832 | March 9, 2011 6:34 PM | Report abuse

I'm a farmer growing corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat so I'd figured I'd chime in here. I guess I'm a little bit on the fence with subsidies. Ag gets quite a few tax dollars from the gov't and I agree with Vilsack that we need to scale them back. I've been farming fulltime for two years now with my father and grandfather and I'd just as soon get no payments from USDA because I feel for the most part I didn't really do anything to earn them. If I take my farmer hat off and just wear the political hat I would say they need to scale waaaaay back, but I understand the "schock" he was talking about, you can't just pull the rug out tomorrow it will take some time. I think farmers can make it own their own without the subsidies, but I feel strongly their needs to be something in place that allows us to keep providing enough food for our own country and maintain that trade surplus. I think we could get into some pretty scary situations importing too much food from other places as goverments around the world rise and fall. Look at what that's doing to the price of oil right now.

Someone earlier mentioned industrialized (sometimes "factory") farming. Now, I can't speak for all types of ag as I can't tell you a whole lot about cattle or growing fruits and vegetables (of which I'm aware that get into workers right and immigration), but I can tell you about the Midwest. 99% of farms are still family owned and operated although they may be large in scale. The three of us and one employee farm 2300 acres. We have neighbors operating 4,5,6 and 7,000 all done with fathers, sons, daughthers, in-laws and some hired hands. These aren't nameless, faceless conglomerates, they are families out there who know that they need to take care of the land in order for it to keep giving back.

Also, I believe there is a disconnect at times between rural areas a large cities, but in no way is one better than the other. I would say they need each other to exist.

Lastly I must say that the comments here are for the most part well put together and open minded on both sides. You don't get a lot of that, especially on the anonymous internet, so thanks to all for that!

Posted by: thefarmerslife | March 9, 2011 10:48 PM | Report abuse

The fact of the matter is that USDA is not neceaarily a good advocate rural development. The FY 12 budget reduces by 88% the only afforable rural housing program in its budget, in favor of a guarantee program that USDA's own Economic Research Service found does not serve rural communites. The budget also elminiates self help housing, which allows low income families the chance to build their own homes. It is a hard to see that USDA views rural development as a priority when, out of a budget of $145 billion, it cannot come out with $100 million for these two small, but important programs.

Posted by: bobrapoza | March 11, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I live in rural Illinois and very few people in these towns are actually farmers. Rural America is built around light industry. I find the congressman's platitudes both ignorant and annoying.

"There's a value system there."
Where isn't there a value system? This means nothing.

Posted by: tellkyle | March 11, 2011 1:48 PM | Report abuse

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