One of the classes most agriculture students take at Barton is titled “Agriculture In Society.” Part of the class deals with the history of agriculture and how it has influenced the development of civilization. Part deals with how to intelligently respond (not react) to challenges presented, and a major part deals with the issues/opportunities facing them as part of the Ag workforce and the industry as a whole. To start class each semester, students are asked what they identify as these challenges and opportunities. Almost without exception they identify a lack of understanding by the general public of what they do and where food comes from. They also mentioned the importance of the Farm Bill and the problems passing it along with government regulation. What they are really discussing is the same issue – the divide between rural and urban America.
This is hardly new and has been mentioned in this column before in a different light. While producing food, fiber and fuel is essential for our society, depending on the numbers, only a few million out of the 300,000,000 people in the country are directly involved in the process. Add to this that most people not only don’t “live on the farm,” most don’t live in rural areas. Most are concentrated in a few key states and/ or live within an hour or so of a coast. So not only aren’t they involved in food production, they aren’t exposed to it.
“Is Kansas a rural or urban state?” is a question asked in this class. Most say rural state but that’s not really true. The population in Kansas is about 2.9 million. Of the number, the Kansas City Metro area and Sedgwick County account for approximately 1.5 million people in six counties. If you add in Geary, Riley and a few more, you are well over 2 million. So two-thirds of the state’s population resides in ten or so counties, leaving the rest to inhabit remaining ninety plus. In terms of population, this is an urban state. Proof of that can be found in looking at the size of the four Congressional Districts. So what does this mean? Even in Kansas there is disagreement between the urban and rural population in the legislature regarding a variety of issues from development and school funding to water resources. So besides the obvious, how does this impact us in Washington?
Urban people are more easily swayed on issues like animal welfare, pest management, and transgenic crops through sensationalized reports on the media. They don’t have the necessary knowledge and exposure to intelligently understand the variety of challenges facing rural America just as we have trouble understanding the challenges of urban America. This finally leads to the Farm Bill and accomplishing its passage. The overwhelming majority of the monies in the bill go to SNAP, what used to be termed the Food Stamp Program, and other associated programs. Members of the House want these two seemingly disparate programs decoupled. Traditional farm programs were merged with the other programs several decades ago but why?
While it may not seem obvious, the reason is the urban vs. rural divide. Tying in programs important to urban legislators (SNAP) with traditional farm programs helped farm state delegations garner support for what their constituents needed and vice versa. While farm state delegations rightly point out that while the Farm Bill may seem like a great deal of money, only a small percentage goes to the producer. It is important for people to understand this fact but it is equally it’s equally important to understand the benefits of keeping them linked.