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A rallying cry for rural America


You could hear it starting before League or Rural Voters Executive Director Niel Ritchie issued what amounts to a rallying cry for rural America: “Sometimes to win a fight, you have to start a fight,” he said. He was quoting the late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone, a hero to folks who haven’t given up on the idea that the rural lifestyle is worth saving and economic development in the countryside isn’t limited to corn, beans, hogs and cattle.

Two-hundred or so people seated in a Hotel Fort Des Moines meeting room a week ago Saturday morning nodded in agreement. They were attending the 2003 National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life, a daylong conference put on by Ritchie’s group to spotlight the assaults on rural America and mobilize a grassroots army to address them through political and consumer activism.

They were a diverse mix of people, the differences between them illustrating the complexity of the problem that has a stranglehold on rural America. They were people who looked the part of the family farmer – not in overalls, but not in pinstripe suits, either – whose worried faces suggested that though they’d survived the agricultural holocaust of the 1980s, their way of life was being sucked into the abyss of misdirected public policy. They were longer-haired activists wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a crease that formed across their foreheads as they considered the social impact of rural America’s decline. They were alternative crop experts talking about the paradigm shift required to turn corn and soybean fields into plots for perennials and grapes. They were black and white folks; men and women; professors students and policy wonks; people wearing “Dennis Kucinich for president” buttons – especially people wearing the blue, green and white Kucinich campaign buttons.

They felt what Ritchie felt: a moral imperative to start a fight while it’s still possible to win it. For Ritchie, rural advocacy is life’s work, a job he say’s he’ll continue through his working career. Along with the late Dixon Terry and a few others, he helped found the League of Rural Voters in response to the outrageous interest rates and boomeranging land values the precipitated the 1980s Farm Crisis. The group was active in 12 states until the early 1990s, when it lost momentum in a more robust agricultural economy punctuated by $12 per bushel beans.

A depression that has settled over the countryside like a winter chill robs many rural Americans of the sense that they can do anything to change their fate, that the decline of a way of life for 55 million Americans is inevitable. Ritchie was there to tell them the clock is ticking, but there’s still time to turn it around. “If we don’t reverse it, there’s going to be hell to pay, and it’s going to be our kids and grandkids that are paying it – and that’s not OK.” Ritchie said, pointing to environmental fallout from industrialized agriculture and factory farming.

Though the League of Rural Voters has been dormant, “it feels like this is the right time” for resurgence, Ritchie said. “People are ready to stand up to politicians who don’t seem to care about whether rural America is healthy – you can’t shove everyone into a city and expect it to work.”

The people in the audience admitted the game is rigged against them, but nevertheless appeared to be spoiling for a fight. In their words and in their energy, you could feel the time is right.

They were stressed out and fed up with a cannibalistic agricultural policy they argue pays only lip service to family farmers, but is actually engineered to prop up the powerful transnational agribusinesses and factory farms that threaten their existence. Ritchie and other speakers allowed the consequences could be accidental – or not – but no less ruinous to a way of life tightly woven into the tapestry of America, but quietly unraveling as policy leaders do nothing. They’ve got a beef with the use of producer-funded checkoff money to help factory farms and they’re mystified that neither the political will of policymakers nor anti-trust legislation are sufficient to wrest back some control from the Cargills and ConAgras, the Tysons and Smithfields. They want to tell the supporters of NAFTA to head south along with the jobs the trade accord has sent offshore. Their list of “wants” is long, encompassing everything from farm policy to economic development policy that sees the value of the locally owned businesses, schools, hospitals and renewable energy in rural communities.

“I stand up here thinking, ‘Will they hear us yet?'” That came from Chris Peterson, a Clear Lake farmer who is vice president of the Iowa Farms Union. He talked about “inexcusable, unacceptable” policies that have turned farmers into tractor drivers and barnyard janitors and are based on the false premise that it’s possible to subsidize and export farmers’ way to prosperity. He lambasted factory farms that overuse antibiotics, policymakers who resist country-of-origin labeling and companies that promote genetically engineered crops that may or may not be safe. “We won’t know that for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “Who’s benefiting? It’s not the farmer and it’s not the consumer.”

Calls to the Iowa Concern hotline, set up in the 1980s as suicides by farmers became epidemic, continue to increase “while politicians ignore it and a nation seemingly forgets it,” he said mournfully.

“Have you heard us now?” he repeated. “It’s a government for and by the people, and it’s time to take our country back.”

You could feel the momentum building and you hoped it would be contagious with the presidential candidates who showed up later that afternoon – John Kerry, Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, Carol Moseley-Braun and, of course, Kucinich. You hoped they heard it, that they meant it when they said renewing the rural economy is a major priority and that they weren’t just singing to the choir.

It’s a monumental task getting people to care about rural America, getting them to see that rural life is more than just a remnant of the past that should be relegated to scrapbooks and getting them to connect the dotted line between those nice, uniform pork chops and factory farming before E. coli turns up in their public water systems.

It’s difficult, but not impossible. It’s been said before: “If not now, then when?”

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