We Must Talk with Rural Voters

–John Norris, Democratic candidate for Governor, was State Director of the Farm Unity Coalition during the 1980s’ Farm Crisis. He served as Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and is currently co-owner of the State Public Policy Group. Norrisforthepeople.com

I have traveled thousands of miles across Iowa on my campaign for governor and I cannot help but get depressed at what I see.  Iowa’s rural landscape has slowly but steadily eroded from when I grew up on my Southwest Iowa family farm. Our state’s farming operations continue to consolidate and family farms are nearing extinction. Rural communities lose population and economic diversity while industrial scale agricultural practices, both crop and livestock degrade our water and soil. Is this progress?

We’ve seen this downslide taking place for too long while policy makers in Des Moines fail to take action. A perfect example of this is the battle over water quality. The problem is well known. Industrial scale agriculture applies tons of fertilizer and chemicals and plants every possible foot of every field in order to secure higher yields and subsidies. Accelerated runoff from fields with no cover crops or buffer strips leads to extremely high levels of nitrogen and nitrates that threaten public health. The municipal water systems need to remove the nitrates, greatly increasing their operational costs when much of the problem can be managed at the source – the field.

The Iowa Legislature, largely influenced by the Farm Bureau and other corporate ag interests, has been ineffective while doing its best to shift responsibility to all citizens of the state rather than those most responsible for the problems. This is a complete policy failure.

How can we incentivize producers and, more specifically, land owners to farm sustainably? If cooperative funding is needed, one approach could be to assess a surcharge on fertilizer and farm chemicals sold in the state. Every dollar generated would go back to farmers through financial assistance to those who deploy measures to reduce over-fertilization, water run-off and soil erosion.

Of course, rural Iowa faces many other issues. Many ‘downtowns’ are close to abandoned. Regional superstores get property tax breaks and then suck commerce from the smaller towns. Changes in agriculture to larger operations and fewer overall operators have driven people from the farm. And the steady expansion of livestock confinement operations has dashed the dream of a bucolic, rural lifestyle for many.

With the primary engines for economic growth outside of Iowa’s cities tending to be meat packing and ethanol production, it is clear that rural communities and regions need a more diverse path forward. They aren’t getting it from a centrally located economic development authority that relies almost exclusively on tax handouts as our economic development strategy rather than actually creating economic opportunity.

Is it time to shift our economic development efforts from this model to regionally-based efforts? Does an authority based in the state’s largest city truly understand the needs and aspirations of a county in the corner of Iowa?

Completely redesigning the state’s economic development model is a radical notion but, with the challenges Iowa and its citizens face, the time is now for considering such changes. We are dealing with a growing number of sobering realities. Our public education system, once the envy of the U.S., continues to decline, not the least because we refuse to fund our schools and teachers adequately. Rural schools and hospitals are the essential building blocks of rural communities and now the privatization of Medicaid threatens the future of these economic anchors.

As Iowa’s population continues to shift from rural to urban, Democrats campaigning for statewide office have focused almost exclusively on the state’s largest counties, while virtually ignoring rural Iowa. It has clearly been a failed strategy to ignore rural voters. We must talk with rural voters about our shared values of caring for the land, families and communities and offer a better vision for the future of rural Iowa. Renewable energy, expanding broadband access, targeting small business development and investing in our workforce are all critical initiatives Democrats should own. We must show we are willing to fight to bring life back to our rural communities and offer a better economic future for rural Iowans.

In 2018, I believe that there will be a Democratic resurgence so that we can return our state to its role of being a leader in progressive policy and action. But to do so will require the greatest possible presence in areas too often ignored by Democrats.

Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2018 issue of  The Prairie Progressive, Iowa’s oldest progressive newsletter, available only in hard copy for $12/yr.!! Send check to PP, Box 1945, Iowa City 52244.

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