Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Despite declines in their numbers, farmers and rural citizens still have political influence

In 1935, farmers made up more than 5 percent of U.S. citizens, but the economic, demographic and political landscapes have changed, Sara Wyant writes for Agri-Pulse. Now farmers represent less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. Their number dropped 4 percent between the Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture in 2007 and 2012, from 2.2 million to 2.1 million.

Also, rural counties are losing citizens; since the mid-1990s, non-metro area population growth has been slower than it is in metro areas. In 2013, 46 percent of non-metro counties decreased in population, while only 17 percent of urban counties decreased. It is challenging for farmers to reach out to consumers and politicians who live in cities.

Do these shrinking populations also mean reduced political influence for farmers and rural people?

Every state still has two senators, regardless of  population, notes Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "So states that are rural have more power than they would if Senate seats were handed out proportionally by population," he said. "That inherently gives agriculture and farmers a bigger say in policy than they otherwise would have."

Even though farmers and ranchers have decreased in number, they still have significant influence, Wyant writes. It's important to remember that the "center of gravity for Democrats has moved to the cities," said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the Program on Public Life and journalism professor at the University of North Carolina. Because most rural white voters in the South are Republican, Guillory said, "They can form coalitions with business and professional people and control much of the South."

Farmers and ranchers tend to align with other like-minded groups, strengthening their influence. Well-coordinated efforts by an interest group—such as farmers, ranchers, food workers or teachers—could "push a candidate over the top," Wyant writes. Farmers are also a dependable voting group and are likely to show up to vote, said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) and associate extension professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky.

Though farmers will have political influence, their declining numbers may become a concern for another reason: They help produce the food that feeds the world.

Because the average American farmer is 58.3 years old, Agri-Pulse invited readers to submit comments about bright young people they've met who work in crop and livestock operations. Two primary concerns came across in what these young people had to say: providing a food source for the world and spreading the word about agriculture and rural America. That is why many young farmers are taking leadership roles "on commodity boards, in farmer organizations, in politics," Ann Tracy Mueller writes for Agri-Pulse.

Farming isn't a 9-to-5 job, so finding the time to serve in these leadership positions can be difficult. "You may think you don't have time today, but you'll have time when you're regulated out of business," Michele Payn-Knoper, a professional speaker and registered Holstein breeder, told Mueller.

"In many areas, programs are in place to identify future leaders and offer them opportunities to learn and grow," Mueller writes. Through agricultural leadership programs, "many of these young people have had the opportunity to develop their leadership potential, learn about struggles in agriculture, visit Washington and travel overseas to learn about global agriculture or trade."

Vena A-dae Romera, an attorney who farms with her family in New Mexico and Hawaii, said, "Regardless of the changing demographics, farmers and producers will always have a 'power' that is unyielding. . . . It's a matter of expressing that power and influence," Mueller writes.

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