What Do Rural People Think?

What do rural people think? This question presses upon the minds of policymakers—or at least should—when it’s time to craft a new Farm Bill, as currently is the case. The U.S. Congress is holding hearings in preparation for the 2018 Farm Bill, which is due to be reauthorized by next September when the current Farm Bill (2014-2018) expires. Read more about House hearings here and Senate hearings here.

In this posting, we highlight some of the thoughts and concerns coming out of a series of “Rural Voices” discussions initiated by the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU). They are capturing the voices of farmers and rural people in real life issues—and offering these as to what should be essential in forming agricultural policy and rural economic development. (Download the MFU report on “Rural Voices Discussions” here.)

According to MFU, initial “Rural Voices” sessions were held earlier this summer in Mankato and Willmar, Minnesota. More listening sessions will be held around the state later in the year and into next year. The new Farm Bill is due to be completed and passed by end of September 2018.

A major concern raised by rural Minnesota residents is making sure there is a strong safety net for family farmers and rural communities. This concern goes beyond agricultural policies and farm risk management: they expressed additional concerns about family health care, hunger in rural areas, and infrastructure improvements.

The “Rural Voices” discussions made clear that the Farm Bill is critical for rural America: it is important that it be written to meet current and future needs, rather than out of a need to cut spending. They felt some legislators are approaching any federal legislation with a hard stance on spending cuts, regardless of social needs and impacts.

Federal legislators need to recognize that low crop prices, high input costs and the high costs of health care have created a crisis in rural America.

Rural Minnesotans speak for many in the nation’s countryside when they also say that the general public needs to be better educated on how the federal Farm Bill helps all communities.

The following bullet points concisely express major social and infrastructure concerns:

  • Health care costs must be addressed: This is a major source of the financial crisis for family farmers in rural Minnesota.
  • SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, must continue to serve increasing needs in rural and urban communities without budget cuts that would be passed on down to the states as expenses.
  • Rural development and infrastructure funding must be included.
  • Broadband high-speed internet development and implementation for all rural areas is essential.

In respect to farming issues, “Rural Voices” specified the following:

  • The Farm Bill is a national safety net for family farmers and rural America: It needs to include grassroots voices to address real needs.
  • Land and credit access for beginning farmers are needed.
  • Expand opportunities for family farmers to harvest and develop renewable energy.
  • Organic standards be standardized and protected.
  • Crop insurance for commodity crops must continue with no budget cuts; and crop insurance for specialist crops must be created with additional funding.

A Call To Action

Based on the initial “Rural Voices” discussions, the Minnesota Farmers Union has already launched a call to action:

Strong Farm Safety Net: We call on Congress to write a new Farm Bill to the needs of farmers, not budget cuts. A new Farm Bill and agricultural issues must be high priorities for Congress. Legislators should maintain financial support for current safety net provisions and look to expand safety net programs to address the broad diversity in family farms in the United States.

Health Care: We call on Congress to use the Farm Bill to solve the issue of health care availability and affordability. This could include options such as farmer co-op pools. Action must be taken to cut down on health insurance premium and deductible costs. If we are serious about keeping families on farms, we need to be serious about this health insurance cost crisis.

Hunger: We call on Congress to continue to keep nutrition and agriculture together in the Farm Bill. We call on Congress to support programs in the Farm Bill to address hunger, especially the SNAP program, Food Shelf initiatives including mobile food shelves for rural areas, and work with rural organizations, local governments and others to ensure that no one in rural America is hungry. Passing a Farm Bill is a moral thing to do. People should be able to afford to eat.

Infrastructure: We call on Congress to address the rural infrastructure issues in the Farm Bill, including ensuring that rural development and broadband internet access programs are properly funded and implemented.

Expanded federal listening sessions

Based on the above, it is clear that Members of Congress need to expand their public hearings on the Farm Bill as it impacts family farmers and rural communities. Legislators should conduct hearings on topics such as health insurance costs, safety nets, broadband, renewable energy, dairy supply management, land access, beginning farmer programs and succession planning, health and human services issues, and hunger issues including closed grocery stores, assisting farmers markets and others.

This can create a broader understanding of how the Farm Bill connects to both urban and rural needs.

This approach strikes us as the moral thing to do for anyone who cares about people and life on family farms and rural communities.

Robert Gronski is a Consultant for Catholic Rural Life. He tracks policy perspectives on food, farm, environmental, and rural community issues and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.