Argiculture: Rural U.S. Urged to Go beyond Farming

By Jackson, Ben | American Banker, July 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Argiculture: Rural U.S. Urged to Go beyond Farming


Jackson, Ben, American Banker


Rural America is not synonymous with American agriculture.

This principle underlies the mission of the Center for the Study of Rural America, a unit of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City that aims to influence the way agricultural policy is set.

The center's director, Mark Drabenstott, said he believes that rural America's problems are too often viewed through the narrow prism of crop production. Rather than just looking for ways to increase farmers' yield per acre, the center examines a much larger issue: bringing people and businesses into rural America.

With Congress beginning to debate the 2002 farm bill, the center's work could play a part in setting agriculture policy. Though they do not advocate specific legislative positions, the center's staff would like to see the farm bill become part of comprehensive legislation to address all of rural America's needs, instead of just those of farmers and ranchers. (See story below.)

"The rural economy has changed a lot since" the government "put in place our rural policy mechanisms," Mr. Drabenstott said.

The current structure of rural policymaking was started around the turn of the 20th century when President Theodore Roosevelt created a Country Life Commission. The panel was assigned to assess the state of farm life and to help farmers solve problems not directly crop-related.

From the commission's work grew the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which created agricultural cooperatives and, 11 years later, the Farm Credit Administration. Though the commission examined rural America as a whole, including schools, infrastructure, and even churches, these topics were ancillary to raising and marketing crops and livestock. Now, however, farming is considered one of many industries in rural America.

Mr. Drabenstott proposed the idea for the center three years ago to Kansas City Fed President Thomas M. Hoenig. With other Federal Reserve district banks devoting fewer resources to rural issues, Mr. Drabenstott saw an opportunity to use the expertise of his staff to examine rural America's problems.

"If you look at this region of the country, we're still importantly a rural region," Mr. Hoenig said. "As Mark Drabenstott observed things, he said, 'Why don't we formalize this and build a center on rural America?' "

The center has since grown to include two economists and two research associates, plus an editor for its monthly newsletter. It also is looking to add a senior research adviser to the staff, whose members hail from such towns as Strawberry Point, Iowa; Shallow Water, Kan.; and Minco, Okla.

"We think it's important for the nation's central bank to understand the dynamics of the rural economy," Mr. Drabenstott said.

To bring about such understanding, the center's staff turns data into information by analyzing economic numbers and preparing its own surveys. It plays host at conferences that bring together experts on the economy, policymakers from this country and abroad, and residents of rural America to exchange ideas.

Mr. Drabenstott also testifies regularly before congressional agriculture panels, and the center tries to educate the public by publishing research reports and a monthly newsletter called The Main Street Economist, which has a circulation of about 8,000.

"I find farmers saying it's not just agriculture out here in rural America," said Kendall McDaniel, associate economist at the center. He said the farmers he meets worry about the towns they live in and say they rely on businesses there.

Mr. McDaniel is working on a National Land Credit Survey to determine credit conditions in rural areas. The goal is to broaden the scope of existing surveys and use the resources of all 12 Federal Reserve banks to measure the value of farm land and the creditworthiness of its owners.

Jason Henderson, an economist at the center, has studied the use of electronic commerce by agribusiness. …

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