GLEANINGS
Working together to remake and retake rural America
Ag advocate Mark Ritchie argues for a collaboration that will reverse the losses of the past and bring the best and brightest to our rural areas

By Mark Ritchie
Prairie Writers Circle

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.

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.

"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?"

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. (See www.renewingthecountryside.org.)

"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 rural versions.

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 the Countryside!"