Op-Ed: Why Rural America Matters

Kristen Oaks-White, co-host for This Week in Louisiana Agriculture, exhibiting her Angus heifer at the 2008 National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado. (Credit: LA Farm Bureau)
By  | 

BATON ROUGE (LA Farm Bureau) - I grew up in rural America.

My father grows poultry and cattle on our farm, and my mother is a high school principal. I grew up in a small community in northeast Louisiana where everyone knows everyone. You could not go to the post office or the gas station without seeing someone who knows you or your parents. In my case, that someone was probably taught by my mother, my uncle, or even my grandmother.

As a small child, I vividly remember standing in line with my parents at our local fire station, as they waited to vote. My mother insisted I go into the booth with her each time “because this was an important part of being an American.” This experience began my love of politics that has continued into my adulthood.

This election season has tested that love, though.

A week after one of the most divisive elections in American history, political pundits, pollsters, and members of the media are still scratching their heads as they wonder how a man with no political experience and a graveyard-sized skeleton closet rose to the highest position in the country. The answer is simple – rural America.

For far too long, rural America has been left out of the political conversation, a fact that our current Secretary of Agriculture knows all too well. In a recent article by the Washington Post, USDA Sec. Tom Vilsack said he was frustrated with a culture in Washington that too often ignored rural America’s struggles and dismissed its virtues.

“I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place,” Vilsack said.
Those sentiments echo throughout the “fly-over states” in the Midwest, the cattle pastures of west Texas, and the sugarcane fields of south Louisiana.

Regardless of which side of the political fence you stand on, the fact is certain that Donald Trump tapped into a valve of anger across working class Americans in rural communities, many who feel they’ve been abandoned by the current establishment. Let’s be honest, this is a world that many people probably don't know very well — and that's part of the problem. We have all managed to ignore the pain of rural America.

In the last decade, the people of rural America have watched the rest of the country ridicule their social values, mock their religious beliefs, question their level of education, and refer to their character as “deplorable.” So is it any surprise that these voters were angry and resentful as they entered the voting booth on Election Day?

As a proud product of rural America, I believe that part of our perception problem is our own fault. For far too long, we have remained silent. We have neglected to tell our story. We have neglected to show our urban friends why rural America is still relevant to their lives.

Tuesday’s election results got the world’s attention and proved that rural America does have a voice. Now it’s our job to educate them about who we are and why rural America matters.

They provide the food and fiber you consume every day.

Whether you realize it or not, every single one of us depend on rural America every day. You may not have a clue what a farm looks like, or care about how crops are grown, but I guarantee that you value the cotton sheets you sleep on each night and the chicken on your dinner plate. Every meal you eat, the clothes on your back, and the roof over your head all started on the farm. Most Americans are at least three to four generations removed from the farm and many don’t realize where their food and fiber actually come from. The agricultural community may only make up two percent of the population, but they provide food and fiber for the entire nation and much of the world.

According to the USDA, American consumers only spend about 10 percent of their income on food, where most other developed countries will spend 20 to 25 percent. Thanks to innovative technology and sustainable farming practices, America’s farmers and ranchers provide us with the safest food supply at the lowest cost compared to any other country in the world.

Once, agricultural jobs had been done exclusively through physical labor. Farmers were and are often stereotyped as having broad backs and small brains. It wasn’t accurate then and it’s certainly untrue now. Farmers employ technology daily to prepare their fields, maximize water use, research the best-yielding varieties, and negotiate with buyers about selling crops, all while dealing with governmental regulations made by lawmakers who often see the farmer as the number one enemy of the environment.

They strengthen their local and state economies.

The prosperity of many small, rural communities rises and falls with agriculture. In Louisiana alone, agriculture contributed more than $7.1 billion to the state’s economy last year, according to the LSU AgCenter’s Ag Summary. When farmers do well, their communities also do well. Farmers and ranchers not only pay taxes that benefit their local schools, hospitals, infrastructure and development, but they also inject money back into their local economy. From equipment sales, to home and farm improvements, farmers spend their profits at local businesses which make purchases with that money, ultimately boosting the economies of those areas.

LSU AgCenter economist, Mike Salassi says, “conservatively, each dollar generated from agriculture is turned over at least three times.”

Agriculture operations also provide employment opportunities for local residents. It’s an important source of livelihood for many rural communities with few options for work. During harvest season, my husband’s family farm employed about a dozen local residents who had been laid off from the oil and gas industry. The vitality of the farm does not just translate into jobs for farmers, but also for industry and other blue-collar workers—other rural voters who spoke loudly.

Farmers buy equipment, expensive equipment, that could be made in factories in the United States. When restrictive legislative actions negatively impact farmers, industry suffers too, as farmers are important consumers.

They dedicate their time and efforts to their local communities.
Farmers contribute to the economic well being of their rural communities and play an active part in everyday life through civic engagement.

From serving on school boards, city councils, and police juries, to PTA groups, 4-H clubs, and churches, farmers know the importance of being involved in their communities. Nearly half of the nation’s farmers volunteer with youth organizations compared with seven percent of the general U.S. population.

Not only do farmers contribute to the economic well being of their communities, but also to a community’s ethical fabric.

Farmers value faith and family. Why? How does one do the job of farming without faith that the hard work and the dreams sown will grow? How else does one face the adversity they face each year knowing that an ill-timed rain, a blowing storm, or a scorching drought could send those dreams and hard work up in smoke? They value God, family and country, and they want politicians who value them too.

So rural America votes. Not just every four years for the major presidential elections— they go to the polls for city council and statewide elections as well. They educate themselves on the policies and the people who will best represent their livelihoods and their industry as a whole. They get involved in the political process through grassroots efforts.

In Louisiana, farmers and ranchers visit their lawmakers in Washington and at the state capitol several times each year to see how the governmental process works first hand.

These are just a few of the things that make rural America a great place. I know that the same can be said for many of the cities and urban hubs that also make up part of this wonderful country we live in. From Chowchilla, California to the tip of Maine -- all of the small towns and big cities are an equally important part of the whole picture.

When all is said and done, rural America wants change. They want changes that will allow their way of life to continue, but also change in people's understanding of who they are and what they value. They don't ask you to agree with them, but they do need others to hear their concerns and respect their right to feel good about producing food for America and the world.

Kristen Oaks-White is the co-host of the weekly television show “This Week in Louisiana Agriculture” and is the Social Media Specialist for the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.