Vanishing Vote: Rural Influence Dwindles

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warns that rural America is becoming less relevant to the politics of this country, and he urges people to push lawmakers to do something about that.

In rural areas, "there just isn't as much political juice as there used to be, and I think we have to address that," said Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who grew up in Pittsburgh.

Many voters in this state with more than 7.7 million acres of farmland might agree.

"We lack political influence because we don't give money to campaigns, and we don't need handouts," said Mat Edgcomb, 38, of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, who voted for President Obama but is not sure the president -- or Washington lawmakers -- understand the values and needs of Pennsylvania's 62,000 farm families.

Much of what he hears about what happens in Congress "is always centered on fixing urban problems. I don't think they fully understand and appreciate what rural America contributes," Edgcomb said while pursuing vendors at the 97th annual Pennsylvania Farm Show, which drew more than 450,000 people before ending on Saturday.

Production agriculture and agribusiness is Pennsylvania's largest industry. Including support services such as food processing, marketing, transportation and farm equipment, it contributes nearly $57 billion to Pennsylvania's economy, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Each of the state's 13 million residents depends on the work of farm families, Gov. Tom Corbett said when opening the farm show.

Yet, disappointed that Congress chose to extend the farm bill by one year instead of tackling a five-year program, Vilsack told the Tribune-Review that people making a living in agriculture need to expand their political bases and strengthen alliances so they have a bigger voice.

"I want to make sure that everybody understands, when I say political relevance, I don't mean that rural America itself isn't relevant," he said. "It's a source of food, water, energy, fuel, jobs and a disproportionate number of our servicemen and women, so it is extremely relevant, in terms of what it contributes to the country."

He cautioned that poverty and a shrinking population have marginalized rural Americans; the urban vote far outweighs theirs. House leaders "thought there wasn't going to be any serious political consequence in not passing the (farm) bill," Vilsack said.

"Because the issue of poverty and population decline needs to be addressed, people need to understand when it is not addressed, you lose political relevance -- and when you lose relevance, you don't get your farm bill, which directly impacts your operations."

Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler County, who grew up on a farm, said leaders of House and Senate agriculture committees developed bipartisan proposals, but when the farm bill advanced, lawmakers piled pork onto it and politics took over.

"It came from committee just fine, with both parties working together on it, but all of a sudden, it got bounced back and forth, (and) things were tacked onto it that have nothing to do with farming," said Kelly, who was among 14 Pennsylvania lawmakers to earn the American Farm Bureau Federation's "Friend of Farm Bureau" award for the 112th Congress. …