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Re-empowering rural America

By Mark Ritchie
Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Thomas Frank succinctly describes the heartland’s economic crisis in a recent Harper’s magazine essay called “Lie Down for America”: “The poorest county in America isn’t in Appalachia or the Deep South. It is on the Great Plains, a region of struggling ranchers and dying farm towns.”

This is an old story, but Frank probes more deeply and shows that struggling rural voters, in the Great Plains anyway, have a habit of voting against their own economic interests. Frank says these voters tend to vote for politicians who have skillfully used hot-button social issues to wed them to an economic agenda that helps the wealthy and hurts the middle class and the poor.

But there is good as well. And some of it might counter the problems that Frank addresses.

All over the country there are rural innovators and entrepreneurs finding new ways to increase their “triple bottom lines” -- improving their income while protecting the environment and contributing to their communities. One good example is Organic Valley, now one of the largest dairy cooperatives in the nation. The co-op has been a pioneer in both ensuring fair prices to organic family farmers and giving major support to the communities they serve. There are hundreds of other examples at http://www.renewingthecountryside.org .

Equally encouraging is the dramatic surge in civic participation across small-town America, as more rural people get involved in electoral politics to preserve democracy.

The League of Rural Voters, the small-town equivalent of the League of Women Voters, this past year has held presidential candidate forums in Iowa, provided details on key policy issues and worked to register more voters and encourage them to better inform themselves. Nonpartisan but strongly in favor of independent family farmers and Main Street businesses, the League also works with farm and rural community organizations to raise the profile of rural issues in the media and among candidates.

One of the League’s exciting projects is the 80/55 Coalition for Rural America, which works to impress on politicians that rural areas contain 80 percent of the nation’s land and 55 million people. As a founding member of this coalition, the League is working to get key rural issues like jobs and educational parity on the political agenda. Another goal is a fairer allocation of federal funding for public investments in rural transportation, health care and the arts.

The League’s Main Street Project brings together rural life “champions,” both in their communities and online, to examine rural America’s economic challenges and to promote policies needed for a sustainable economic revival.

Perhaps most important, the League’s Election 2004 project helps people find out where candidates stand and encourages involvement through the http://www.November2.org campaign.

Improving life in the rural America whose decline Frank explores will take hard work and effective political action. Successful farmers and rural businesses are stoking the economic engine, while groups like the League of Rural Voters are stoking democracy. May this combination prevail.


Mark Ritchie is president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.