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Will Diversity Come to Rural America?

By Ken Root

This is a time of great uncertainty in Rural America as we assume the new administration will modify policies that impact people who live or work on farms or in rural communities.  Polls show that most rural people are unhappy with the current condition of the economy where they live.  It is likely the rural areas will vote for change (Trump) but even though urban dwellers may also be unhappy, they are likely to vote to extend the policies of the current party in the White House (Clinton).

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for the past eight years, is giving farewell speeches that may indicate the direction of a Democrat administration.  He is emphasizing “diversity” in agriculture as a strength for the future.  His tone is encouraging but bringing diversity to production agriculture may require government incentives that reach far beyond the current social and economic base of that region.

Production agriculture is literally “white as snow”.  Farmers of color have been gone for at least two generations.  People of European ancestry have thrived on the Plains since the mid 1800’s and their productivity has only been matched by that of similar white settlers who moved from Europe to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  Steve King, an Iowa Congressman, took a lot of heat for declaring that white people have contributed more to the advancement of human civilization than any other “sub-group” of people.  Although it was politically insensitive to say, in agriculture, he was right.

That doesn’t mean diversity is not coming. Agribusiness is already diversifying for one simple reason:  there are not enough farm raised kids to supply the needs of corporate America.  Rural youth have been one of the most attractive “subgroups” in modern times as the work ethic taught by farm life combined with their parent’s desire for each generation to be educated and excel has resulted in most rural youth seeking careers off the farm.  It is often pointed out that our most valuable farm export, has been our children.  But the well is running dry.  DuPont/Pioneer says only ten percent of their new hires come from a farm background.

Intelligence has no color; so human resources professionals are casting their nets more broadly.  4-H and FFA are popularizing agricultural careers in urban schools, so diversity is moving into agribusiness.  However, I don’t see many of the first generation of those agribusiness professionals transitioning to farming as their primary occupation.

There is one minority that is moving up in farm operations: white women.  The likelihood of a woman taking over a farming operation from her parents is much higher than a generation ago.  Society and technology have combined to pave the way for women to operate literally any unit of agricultural production.  I know women who run greenhouses, forage farms, dairy operations and swine units.  In some cases, the spouse has an outside job and the wife, or partner, is the sole decision maker on the farm.  Women have long been a part of farming but only recently have they gained equality in management. In spite of what you may read into my description, I don’t think this is the diversity Secretary Vilsack is describing.

The challenge in production agriculture is for ethnic groups to move into farming from other backgrounds.  The business model hardly works for most who are now doing it!  There are some small scale exceptions like specialty farming on plots that surround major cities.  These farmers are often immigrants who have skill in small scale fruit and vegetable production.  They sell directly at farmer’s markets and do other types of direct marketing.  The investment is reasonably small and the work is hard but the transition is considered to be good by first generation Americans who speak limited English and may have and extended family in the same house with some members working off farm and others contributing with their household farm labor.

But will future administrations accept the diversity in agriculture stopping at the farm gate?  Will government incentivize newcomers or dis-incentivize those who now farm?  I don’t think we will ever see a substantial number of U.S. born African Americans return to the land.  Their social history is too painful.  However, an apologist government could award land to Native Americans and African Americans.  Old treaties could be honored by future governments.  Could both “sub groups” could be appeased by ceding either government and private land to them?

In the bigger picture, would it in the best interest of this country to put new people on the land?  Some might say it would be better to have a larger number of small farmers to slow consolidation and expansion of land ownership.  “Political progressives” might make the case that higher inheritance taxes could accomplish that purpose by impeding family dynasties while increasing government coffers.  Still, we are not Zimbabwe, where white ownership of land was stripped away and awarded to black supporters of the government regime.  The result was a dramatic decline in agricultural production and runaway inflation. No democratic government could withstand that shock.

Future trends are hard to sense without knowing the agenda of government.  It seems unlikely that this country will see value in de-centralizing the population.  Rural people are likely to be more self-sufficient and less friendly to government control.  You don’t have to be white to have a “red neck” mindset.  It is more likely that our cities will expand, as they are around the world, and the productivity of farmers, not their ethnicity, will be the criteria by which they are judged.  Today’s farmers are showing their ability to expand food production while transportation systems efficiently deliver it anywhere on the globe.  Food and agriculture issues are hardly on the platforms of any political candidate.  Marijuana legalization gets more press than food production.

The United States government has found a means to have most food produced by a small fraction of the population but still have great influence over their economic wellbeing through incentives and regulations.  Less than two hundred thousand farms produce over eighty percent of our food supply yet we remain in an oversupply situation much of the time.  Farmers are tied tightly to government programs and export policies as well as regulatory oversight.  Right now, our government is debating whether to expand trade treaties with opposition from both political parties.  Farming, at any scale, is subject to political forces that will keep it marginally profitable except for brief periods brought on by weather or world demand.

“God save us from people who mean well!”  Future administrations may sing the praises of diversity in agriculture but it won’t be to their advantage to change the color or creed of the production sector.