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.
On its website, the federation tells members how to advocate for agriculture: "By far, the most effective way to articulate your views to your elected officials and positively affect the outcome of legislation and of policy debates is to speak with lawmakers face to face."
The 2012 election proved that urban voters dominate American politics, said Curt Nichols, a political science professor at Baylor University in Texas. Obama won 13 states with big urban populations and less-than-average rural populations, easily giving him 213 of the 273 electoral votes he needed. Republican Mitt Romney carried 11 states with greater than 50 percent rural populations for a total 56 electoral votes.
"Urban progressives often complain that the Electoral College and the Senate give rural states too much power, but the facts demonstrate that urban states dominate the Electoral College and that only a little more than half of rural senators are Republican," the party that caters more to rural voters, Nichols said.
Eldon Eisenach, a retired professor at the University of Tulsa, says farmers have power but don’t wield it collectively to affect government policy.
At the farm show, Chris Ransom, 32, of Harrisburg acknowledged people living in rural areas don’t protest or push their elected representatives.
"We don’t speak out on a national collective level, and when we have a problem or a disaster, we fix it ourselves," Ransom said.
Neither Ransom nor Devon Moyer, 34, of Camp Hill voted in November; they felt disconnected.
Moyer watched Congress react quickly to politicians who loudly demanded billions of dollars in disaster relief aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of New York and other urban areas in the Northeast in October.
"I thought that the call for urgency dragged when it came to helping the Midwest farmers during this summer’s drought," Moyer said.
Political strategist Burns Strider, a Mississippi native who helps Washington Democrats reach rural voters, says the party’s values and policies match those of rural Americans, "but our strategies to communicate this can fall short," leading to voter disenfranchisement.
"A true majority party for the Democrats is one that sees no flyover country but finds all of the nation of equal value," Strider said.
Jeff Mucci, 50, who owns a 40-acre farm near Greensburg, would agree with that. He believes Congress and Obama, for whom he voted, "only somewhat" address his values and concerns.
"Democrats need to do a better job of talking to voters outside of the city," said Mucci, attending the farm show with sons Matt, 21, and Enrico, 14, who showed his 260-pound pig, Ralphie.
"Both political parties are two sides of the same coin," said Stephen Horst, 29, who grew up on a Lebanon County farm. "They know that the power and urgency surrounds the city limits. We do need to do a better job of making our voice heard, because as far as I can tell, no one heard us in this past election cycle."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter