Country Corner

News cycle is hard on agriculture

Critics swipe at farming and rural living

I have a news feed reader that pumps headlines by the thousands into my computer. It is set to instantly capture articles from agricultural publications as well as general publications that happen to mention farming or agriculture. What comes in is distinctly of two camps.

One camp consists of the scribblings of ag writers, farm commentators and general farming news. These headlines lead to technical articles and current-events stories that inform people in the industry. They are written for farmers. They tell what prices are doing, offer explanations of new regulations, deliver stories about technology being applied to agriculture, offer crop reports and all the rest.

The second camp comes more from writers outside of agriculture. These headlines and the stories attached to them are much different. More often than not, they are critical of commodity farms, suggesting that the entire U.S. agricultural model is broken and needs pulled up, tap root and all. Increasingly, the inflow of stories seems to be not just against status-quo farming, but taking aim at people who live outside of urban areas. Among these stories, in the high-brow and more cautious writers’ copy, you’ll find hints of anti-rural sentiment. In the more brash writers’ copy, you’ll find barely hidden disdain for rural culture. And in the online comments, if you can stomach them, you’ll find an unsettling sort of prejudice against farmers and rural citizens.

Outside the foodie movement, which has leveraged itself against commodity agriculture (think Michael Pollan), it’s difficult to unpack where these opinions gain popularity. I should point out that my evidence is anecdotal, but headlines keep coming nonetheless.

One of my favorites of late is Jonathan Chait in The New Republic’s blog, Talking Points. Chait is writing in response to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s interview with the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. In a book review, Klein had argued that cities are powerful economic multipliers. He said that it is politically impossible to divert public spending away from rural areas to cities, implying that money spent on rural and agricultural programs is less useful than federal money directed to cities.

Vilsack took exception and sat with Klein for an interview about the topic. It was good of Vilsack to respond, but, by my estimation, his response in the interview wasn’t resolute enough. He defended rural places and agriculture, but not with enough conviction. And that’s where The New Republic’s Mr. Chait comes in, batting away Vilsack’s generalities about the equitability of federal spending for rural and agricultural purposes. He wrote:

Declaring the moral superiority of rural people is a common trope of American politics. Some city dwellers think of themselves as superior to everybody else, but they understand they can’t say so openly.
Suburbanites don’t tend to think of themselves as morally superior by dint of their suburbanity. Only rural Americans are deemed morally superior on the basis of their population density.

Why is it so common to praise the character of rural America? Part of it is doubtless that rural life represents the past, and we think of the past as a simpler and more honest time. But surely another element is simply that rural America is overwhelmingly white and Protestant. And completely aside from the policy ramifications, the deep-seated veneration of rural America reflects, at bottom, a prejudice few would be willing to openly spell out.

Thanks, Mr. Chait, but I’m not sure that is what, at bottom, rural America reflects. Rural America reflects a population that largely would like to pass on identity politics, and, as the founder of this magazine was wont to say, be given a square deal.

In terms of Today’s Farmer country, I think what rural Americans, and especially the farmers among us, want is the ability to get on with the commerce and business of the day. We’d like discussions about the farm bill to include the amount of spending the USDA directs toward food programs for the impoverished. We’d like someone to explain how world food markets hinge on the commodities because these are the non-perishable fundamentals of a food system.

But we don’t get that. We get Chait, Klein, Pollan and the rest.

To toss out a couple of 50-cent and contradictory terms, the passing scene seems like internecine xenophobia—a situation where rural and urban cultures not only don’t understand each other but seek to overcome each other.

It’s hardly the way forward.

(edited for format: 05-09-16 sf)

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