What to expect for agriculture and rural communities in 2017? This is a question farm and rural advocacy groups are pondering as a new administration takes over federal policies. These will set the course for not just agriculture and food production, but a number of environmental concerns and the quality of life for rural communities.
For some farm groups, a policy “wish list” would include expanded trade opportunities; environmental deregulation; immigration policies that don’t take away farm workers; and continued “safety net” programs that help farmers when prices fall or bad weather ruins their crops. Catholic Rural Life approaches these concerns through the lens of Catholic social teachings, and this year will be no exception.
But besides following public policy discussions, CRL also listens to the people and voices in small towns and rural communities around the country. They worry about their future. For farm families, average incomes have fallen for three straight years now. For others in rural America, poverty has been rising. Government policies are expected to soften these blows to some extent, but here’s the greater problem to face: how to keep young people from moving away.
CRL will continue to voice strong support for programs benefitting beginning farmers and ranchers. We do so in concert with members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition who are advocating for federal policies that remove barriers facing family farmers, including the inability of new farmers to compete with large farms for coveted farmland or lucrative markets.
But the hard reality is that farm numbers are not likely to increase anytime soon, and in fact more consolidation of farmland under fewer operators is the country’s likely future. According to the latest census of agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in the United States for 2015 is estimated at 2.07 million, down 18 thousand farms from 2014.
For many rural communities, farmers have become a small proportion of their local population. Consequently, rural leaders do not focus on agricultural priorities and policies to the same degree as outside farm commodity organizations and sustainable agriculture advocates.
Some CRL members will know the work of Chuck Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, and their objective analysis on the economic health of rural communities. He has said on occasion that small towns don’t depend much on farmers as much as they use to, even as those remaining farmers would like to see viable businesses and services in their communities.
So for all the talk and negotiations that will go into Farm Bill programs this year, we’ll have to wait and see if more pressing concerns to small towns and rural communities receive the attention they deserve. More than talk, that means an increase in federal funds for rural economic development. Rural residents have rightly felt that urban interests and funding levels (measured in per capita terms) greatly exceeded their own.
Will farmers and farm organizations step forward to help? They have political clout when it comes to securing subsidies for their commodity operations. As Chuck Fluharty might say, those farm organizations should be pushing Congress, and the new Trump Administration, on behalf of policies that help their small towns; not just their own farms.