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December 10, 2016
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Rural America’s potential

Reading this week’s My View op-ed piece in The River Reporter [see page 7] by retired dairy farmer Nate Wilson of Sinclairville, NY got us thinking about the challenges facing rural Americans, including many of us who live here in the Upper Delaware Valley.

Notoriously, rural America has been in decline for a very long time—losing population in many localities and lagging behind in income and employment opportunities that would entice our young people to stay, to live, to work and to raise their families here. The truth is that our country has overwhelmingly become an urban and suburban nation with 80% of our citizens living there. That is where both prosperity and political power rest, and this presents a challenge for the other 20% of us who must figure out where we fit in in a changing world, or risk being marginalized.

In his now controversial speech of last month, [for a transcript, see:], U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sought to engage farmers not only in a conversation about the future of agriculture in the U.S. but also, by implication, the fate of rural America. Sadly, he started out by insulting and alienating much of his constituency, taking the “my-way-or-the-highway” approach by suggesting that farmers must change their ways and their thinking.

It seems evident that Vilsack and struggling farmers—particularly those on small family farms as we have in our region—have differing explanations for the source of the problems farmers face today. But putting that aside for a moment, Vilsack’s question of how rural America will survive and thrive is legitimate. (Too bad he chose to frame his point by saying that without change rural America risks losing its relevance.)

It’s time for rural America to demand the respect we deserve from non-rural America. With this, however, we need to do some soul searching. There are real questions to consider. What do we need for our rural area to prosper in the 21st century? What is our vision for ourselves? How will we achieve it?

The good news is that local initiatives—both public and private, as well as top down and grassroots, bottom up efforts—are underway in the Upper Delaware Valley aimed at building a better economic future. In addition, we live in an area rich with amenities within easy travel distance from large centers of population full of people who want what we have to offer. Sullivan County in New York and Wayne and Pike counties in Pennsylvania will continue to grow, bringing opportunities for new businesses and jobs. For this, however, we need to provide a workforce with 21st century skills. We need to develop our human capital with quality education. We need to teach entrepreneurship and leadership. We need to cultivate strategic partnerships.

We also need diversity—not relying solely on one industry, such as tourism or agriculture, but building 21st century opportunities that are not necessarily based in our past successes. We need to embrace the diversity of new residents who will arrive, bringing experience, skills and financial resources to lift the wider regional economy.

There’s no question that we also need help, however. Regretfully, rural policy over the years has been unfocused, inadequate and often ineffective. We need improved rural policies at the federal and state level as well as community actions. Funding has been inadequate, going instead to large population centers. Communities like ours need critical infrastructure, investment, capital and services. We need the same kind of investment that cities get for transportation systems, the same level of help big agribusiness gets in subsidies, the same kind of help seen historically in the rural electrification of America more than 75 years ago. (Imagine if all of rural America had access to high-speed Internet and broadband capabilities.)

Remember the bailouts of Wall Street and Detroit? They were deemed “too big to fail.” We, in rural America, must make plain that we, too, are too important to fail and that we have been neglected for too long. Our country could not survive without rural America, which is the source of its food, fiber and drinking water. Rural America is the source of human capital, too, which has too often been wasted.

Rural America is full of potential. We are a great untapped resource. With the right planning and investment, rural America could be the engine that drives the next economic expansion.