Three Ways to Ensure Rural America’s Relevance

Posted on January 14, 2013

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mg_7956Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack is agriculture’s top voice in Washington, and his message is clear: rural communities are losing relevance in America.

“I am excited for the future, but to build up this prosperity, I am concerned that all Americans must gain an understanding for the importance and potential of rural areas,” Mr. Vilsack said recently.  “With a diminishing proportion of our citizens living in rural areas – about 16 percent today – they face a real challenge in being heard by Washington.”

Instead of getting discouraged, his honesty should make us sit up and take notice. Rural Americans need to be aware of the challenges we face.

If we want our voices heard, we need to speak up, because there just aren’t as many of us as there used to be! Last year, over half of America’s rural counties saw their population decline. There are now 51 million farmers, ranchers and rural residents in America.

Are we fighting an uphill battle? Yes, but that’s nothing new. Rural Americans have always been resilient. In 2012 we faced one of our nation’s most historic droughts–a drought so severe that the USDA last week designated 597 of our counties “disaster areas.” Yet we’ve survived. We’ve battled a terrible economy and seen a wave of new technology that makes our work ever more competitive and complex. Yet we’ve survived. We are part of the story and legacy of America. We are carrying on the work of generations before us. We can face this new challenge.

Here are three ways we can make our voices heard and boost rural America’s relevance:

1. Emphasize Education!  The last few years have seen a burgeoning growth in agriculture majors. This is an exciting trend! Not every rural teen wants to go to college, but parents and teachers should encourage those who do. Young people raised in rural communities can be ambassadors by exemplifying the hardworking values of their upbringing. They can be a voice to peers who may be unfamiliar with their way of life.

When I started attending school in Los Angeles, I found that many of my classmates were completely unfamiliar with the way of life I knew. They were surprised that people still rode horses and that working ranches existed outside of TV! Many came to visit me in my home over the years. If anything, my experience as a journalism student in L.A. gave me a greater appreciation for my own upbringing, and strengthened my commitment to write stories about the men and women of rural America.

Rural teens often get left behind when it comes to education. Many opt to skip college or to attend community colleges and live at home instead of branching out. For many kids this is what works best, but parents and teachers should encourage those young people who have the ability and the interest to attend top schools to pursue their dreams and not to let their voices go unheard. Don’t be afraid of broader horizons.

2. Get social…media, that is! Ree Drummond, of the Pioneer Woman blog, started a virtual web dynasty just by taking pictures of her family’s ranch and sharing her favorite recipes. Food producers can effectively grow their business by using social media tools as well–like this farmer described in a Capital Press article:

A California avocado grower’s mother started a Facebook page for his fresh avocados and now they ship to 17 states, Miklusak said. It was done not with a hard sales pitch, but simply providing information about what he does, his avocados and their health benefits, she said.

Farmers and ranchers are already beginning to understand the importance of social media in telling their story–in fact, it was a major topic at this year’s American Farm Bureau Federation meeting.

Social media is changing the way people buy, sell and connect. You can add your voice by starting a Twitter account (look at the people I follow for some great “agvocate” accounts to subscribe to, making business page on Facebook for your farm or ranch, or starting a Pinterest or Instagram account to share photos from your ranch. Be creative! Learn who is speaking out for ranching (a small but growing number), support them, and add your own voice!

Note: I’m currently compiling a list of ranching sites and blogs. Check back soon.

3. Find out who your friends are. Did you know that more than 80 percent of lawmakers in D.C. don’t represent rural areas?

That makes it all the more important for those who do to hear from us!

Do you know who your congressman or congresswoman is and where he/she stands on issues you care about? They are your voice and vote on Capitol Hill. They represent you! Take the time to get in touch with your politicians.

It’s easy. Visit this page on the House.gov website and type in your zip code.

What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments section.

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