Last week while speaking in Washington D.C., at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack criticized the country’s farmers for not finding an active voice in the political landscape, blaming a lack of vision and leadership in the agricultural world on the ongoing struggles to pass a new farm bill in the current legislative session.
“It’s the fact that rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country,” Vilsack said. “We had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”
If Vilsack’s comment is true, it could mean much of Alabama is falling out of relevancy, at least where national politics is concerned. Of the state’s 67 counties, all but 12 are considered rural by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Likewise, Alabama’s economy depends on rural America, said Dale Quinney, director of the Alabama Rural Health Association. Alabama is among the top 10 states in the country in food production, and the second largest in the forestry industry.
“If you’re talking strictly population, you may have a point,” Quinney said. “But if you ask me ‘Are rural communities in Alabama becoming irrelevant?’ the answer is no way.”
If national trends indicate the rural voice is being lost in Washington, Alabama State Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, said it’s hardly had an effect at all in Alabama, where 75 percent of the population lives in rural communities. Dial, a former director of the Rural Alabama Action Committee, said politicians and lawmakers in the state bond together and share interest in development of those communities, which make up the majority of the state’s land, population and industry.
More importantly, Dial said, he disagreed with Vilsack’s comments that farmers shouldn’t focus on protecting their livelihood against what Dial described as increasing and unfair regulations that threaten small farms.
“That’s like telling an automobile worker not to worry where the parts are coming from and just keep making automobiles,” Dial said. “And if next year we don’t have any motors, oh well.”
But other state officials said they interpreted Vilsack’s comments not as a dig at farmers, but a call for rural communities to find a unified vision and to have their voices heard in local, state and national politics. Ron Sparks, the former Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries, said Vilsack’s comments shouldn’t serve as an offense to a farm community, but a rallying call to ensure that industries in rural America continue to have a voice.
“California’s farmers’ priorities should be partnered with farmers in the Corn Belt, who should be partnered with farmers in the Southeast, who should be partnered with farmers in the Northeast,” Sparks said. “If you’re going to be effective, you need to stand together and be stronger.”
Jon Hegeman, a White Plains farmer and chairman of the Alabama Young Farmers Federation, said Vilsack’s comments should serve as a warning, especially to a younger generation of farmers, that unless they are able to stick together, the survival of American farms could rapidly decline.
“He’s saying to farmers, ‘Hey, wake up, get involved,’ or else it’s going to be too late,” Hegeman said. “There’s a great future for rural America, but if we don’t speak up now, it could be gone.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.