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Rural America’s potential

January 9, 2013

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?