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  • Writer's pictureKaren Young

Democrats can win rural voters with a better Farm Bill

 Welcome to SWOT Sunday!


A huge bill is coming up in Congress starting this week that will have a major impact on upcoming elections.  It’s the Farm Bill, which comes up every five years.  The powers that be are looking to maintain the status quo on agriculture.  But a grassroots coalition of farmers and other groups is looking to make some real change.  Democrats and progressives have an opportunity to win support among rural voters – but only if they support rural communities.


It’s going to be tough because budget rules mean you can’t add money to the pot.  If you add something to one area, you have to take it away from somewhere else.


What Do Rural Voters Mean To Democrat Hopes?


Discussing their recent book called The Rural Voter, the authors explain to Politico the sea change that has happened in rural areas since the 1980’s, and what Democrats need to know to win again in these areas.


Author Daniel Shea says “a rural-urban [political] divide has existed from the beginning [of our country]…[but for most of that time] it was regional, state-based and temporary.” Shea and co-author Nicholas Jacobs say that now, based on their survey of 10,000 rural voters, “this extensive national divide is unprecedented in our history.”


Asked about the implications of their research on the 2024 elections, Shea says in part, “The rural voter bloc…is more important for the GOP than either Black or young voters are for the Democrats…If the Democrats can’t chip away and make some inroads, it is not good on a national level and it’s going to be really bad at the state level.”


A Brief Background


An Iowa PBS show called “The Farm Crisis” describes briefly what happened to rural areas in the 1980’s.


“US farmers were confronted by an economic crisis more severe than any since the Great Depression. Many of those who relied on agriculture for their livelihoods faced financial ruin. The epicenter of the downturn was in the Midwest, but the effects quickly rippled to other areas where agriculture played a prominent role in the local economy.


The '80s farm crisis accelerated a trend that had already decimated the rural economy for a half century: declining population. In 1935, the number of farms in the United States reached an all-time high of 6.8 million. By the mid-1980s, only 2.2 million farms remained.


Rural communities that once bustled with activity began to look more like ghost towns. Thousands of farm families defaulted on their loans and were forced off the land. Those who couldn't find work in nearby towns pulled up stakes in droves, and the mass exodus resulted in fewer jobs for those who stayed.

Businesses and factories shut down-many never to reopen. Stores on Main Street were closed and scores of banks failed. The rapidly declining population resulted in abandoned farmhouses, diminished government services and widespread school consolidations.

As the economic downturn worsened it spread to cities where manufacturers of farm implements and other agricultural supplies cut thousands of employees from their payrolls.

By the time Congress intervened in the mid-to-late 1980s, many farmers, families, and communities felt the damage had already been done and it was a case of too little too late. Yet the farm crisis brought about profound social, political and economic reforms in the agricultural sector.

Though barely remembered by much of the urban population, painful recollections of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression are seared into the memories of many rural Americans, as the combination of too much debt, slumping commodity prices and ill-advised government policies created a perfect storm.”

So yeah. There's real grievance.

Rural Voters’ Worldview


Jacobs says that in the 1980’s, “the behaviors of rural voters begin to nationalize. [No matter where you are] you’re starting to behave similarly and react to similar forces…There’s real social transformation in rural agricultural and manufacturing communities, but there’s also political narrative construction by Republicans.”


"Will your kids have to leave your community in order to live a productive life? Are politicians listening to the needs of your community?  This is what rural people think about.  Suburbanites and urbanites are not thinking about that.”


How Can Democrats Win?


Talking about successful rural Democrats like Tim Ryan in Ohio, Shea says that this is about “identity politics.  Good rural candidates [come from] the local community and can speak to its history and sense of place.”


As most Democrats and progressives also wonder, the Politico writer asked what then explains a Manhattan billionaire’s appeal to rural America.  Jacobs says that Trump didn’t pretend to be rural. "He didn’t go around making a whole to-do about being born in Scranton like Joe Biden... It made him not authentically rural, but authentic as a non-typical politician...when he talks about things like taking pride in mining coal, he is showing empathy," just like progressives don’t have to be Black to show empathy for Black people.  And given that Democrats weren’t showing empathy for rural voters, the contrast in Trump’s message resonated.


Shea says that “the [rural] voters have to believe that Joe Biden, the Federal government and the Congress really understands what’s happening here.  Just sweeping your hand and saying, “we’re bringing you broadband,” is not going to cut it.”   Bringing and talking about more specifically targeted solutions, as well as more empathy, is needed now.

Shea also says, "One of the reasons it may be hard for Democrats to go into rural areas is that they’ve come to believe these are bastions of crazy Trumpers. … But what we show in this book is that there are genuine concerns that pre-date Donald Trump by decades."


That Brings Us To The Farm Bill


 The GOP-led House Agriculture Committee will begin to consider a bill on May 23.  It must be finalized in both houses by September.


A story in Barnraiser notes that “millions of people will rely on the nearly $1.5 trillion to be authorized in the farm bill.” There are some big differences between what Democrats and the GOP want in the bill this year, whereas in the past, there was more bi-partisan agreement.


Republicans and Democrats each have priority policies.  The GOP wants to deliver policies that benefit their base of agribusiness interests and mega-farm owners, including raising crop subsidies, especially in the South. 

The Democrats want to hang onto SNAP benefits – which the GOP wants to cut - especially for their urban base, and climate policies, such as money for conservation, laid out in the Inflation Reduction Act. 


Both parties hope to agree on “a status quo “must pass” package that locks in another five years of corporate agribusiness-friendly farm and food policies,” and that protects them from having to take votes that would be tough to defend to the folks back home.


An Issue Separating Family Farmers From Politicians


An issue separating corporate agriculture from the rest is checkoff reform legislation. As Barnraiser explains, “checkoffs are mandatory fees collected when farmers sell crops, livestock or other commodities. The money is supposed to go to things like research and advertising like “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”   According to an op-ed in Civil Eats, nearly a billion dollars a year gets collected from farmers for this.


Will Harris, a rancher in Georgia, wrote that “In my industry, farmers and ranchers are required to pay $1 for every animal they raise toward the fund. The beef checkoff program then contracts with a group called the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) for its research and promotion efforts. While the NCBA receives some membership dues and some corporate sponsorships, more than 70 percent of its budget—$26 million—comes out of the pockets of ranchers through the checkoff.


NCBA then turns around and lobbies on behalf of its largest members, including Cargill, McDonald’s, and Tyson Foods.”


Obviously, family farm groups have long been opposed to these fees.  They have put forward a bill called the OFF Act (Opportunities for Fairness in Farming), cutting the fees and making them more transparent, that they want to see included in the Farm Bill. It was introduced by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey). I’m not sure how Booker got involved, but I am pleased to see him taking action on this.


As Barnraiser says, the movement has serious grassroots support, including high-profile public meetings forthcoming in Minnesota, Kansas, Alabama and North Dakota, plus swing states Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, in May and June.

These events, called the “Enough is Enough” Tour, are endorsed by a long list of groups, including the American Grassfed Association, Dakota Resource Council, Farm Action, Farm Action Fund, Kansas Black Farmers Association, Montana Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio Farmers Union, Organization for Competitive Markets, Pennsylvania Farmers Union, R-CALF USA, Western Organization of Resource Councils and Wisconsin Farmers Union.


What Can Democrats Do?


First, don’t be Rep, Barbara Lee and when you’re asked about the Farm Bill and you have a boatload of constituents who are farmers, just talk about SNAP.  Yes, SNAP matters, but not to farmers.


Farmers and rural voters are not being served by the GOP.  Democrats and especially progressives, being less entangled with corporate ag interests, could lead on getting some of these key farm issues into the mix of the Farm Bill, and fighting for rural voters more generally.  Convergence gets it; they have a story called “The Path To Building Power Runs Through Rural America.”


Here is a nice story from Teen Vogue about young progressives fighting to get elected in rural areas.


The Farm Bill is a beast and there are many important issues involved, including some that should matter to environmental activists.  Civil Eats has highlighted issues like how the bill could support farmers whose business is affected by climate change, support animal welfare, roll back pesticide protections, and more. 



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