APRIL 7, 2003: My favorite musical, "Oklahoma!",
argues that the farmer and the cowman should be friends. I keep
hoping for a musical that will argue the same for family farm
advocates and promoters of rural economic development.
Ritchie is president of the Institute for
Agriculture and Trade Policy (www.iatp.org/foodag),
based in Minneapolis, Minn. A Georgia native who
grew up in Iowa and California, Ritchie is a member
of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute
in Salina, Ka.
||"How can we help Americans see
that each small disappearance in our rural communities,
whether it is a school closing or a farm auction, affects
There is a running debate on the crisis in rural America
between those who see farming as the only engine possible
for economic recovery in the countryside and those who see
farming as a thing of the past best abandoned as soon as possible.
We need to press these two groups to work together to stem
the flow of youth, brains and money out of rural communities,
and then to recover what has been lost.
In a beautiful but disturbing essay called "Disappearance,"
the prophetic Terry Tempest Williams describes a plethora
of losses from the planet: people snatched by dictators and
brutes, wilderness and wildlife destroyed by progress, and
whole communities gone because of intentional and unintentional
neglect. She links these small and large disappearances with
a reminder of the loss to the whole.
How can we help Americans see that each small disappearance
in our rural communities, whether it is a school closing or
a farm auction, affects us all? How do we reverse this flow
of disappearance and attract the best and the brightest to
the countryside, along with investment to rebuild schools,
hospitals, places of worship, businesses and community organizations?
We need profitable uses of land that also preserve it and
the culture that depends on it. A small group of us has been
capturing the stories of rural revitalization already under
way. There are hundreds of exciting, creative examples, such
as artisan food producers, nature-oriented recreation and
provision of amenities that make rural communities special.
|"I believe we need to build a
united movement for rural America. This means bringing
together long-term competitors . . .
It means bringing together rural-based labor unions and
business assocations . . .
It means rural development advocates must abandon their
attacks on farm programs, and farmily farm advocates must
support development of business."
But these are separate beginnings. I believe we need to build
a united movement for rural America. This means bringing together
long-term competitors like the Farmers Union and Farm Bureau.
It means bringing together rural-based labor unions and business
associations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses
and chambers of commerce. It means rural development advocates
must abandon their attacks on farm programs, and family farm
advocates must support development of business that revitalizes
rural areas in healthy ways.
Some key leaders, like Chuck Fluharty of the Rural Policy
Research Institute, advocate a new rural constituency organization.
In a few states, the League of Rural Voters is blossoming
as a force for small towns and farmers. We must support explicitly
electoral organizations like this to strengthen the rural
voice in national political debate.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation promotes projects that encourage
local food production for local consumption. This is opening
conversation between traditional family farm organizations
and the new generation of food entrepreneurs, including immigrant
farmers, direct marketers, food processors and chefs.
And there is a movement to develop land-preserving and wildlife-enhancing
production standards for crops. Organizations involved include
the Third Crop Network and the Wild Farm Alliance.
In urban areas, forward-thinking businesses have created
a new form of networking called "local living economies."
These local networks encourage local purchasing by consumers
and businesses, social and environmental responsibility and
the development of human-scale, community-based businesses.
The local groups are united under a national umbrella, the
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Linking up with
this national initiative might be a good way to jump-start
We must gather all these threads to weave a whole cloth of
rural businesses and farmers creating enterprises that are
financially self-sufficient, ecologically sound and community
enhancing. Maybe these efforts can spawn a new musical to
rival "Oklahoma!" -- something called "Renew