Cities like Chicago are cool. Chicago's neighbors live in rural Illinois.
Photo: Stuck In Customs

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested last week that instead of a Secretary of Agriculture we need a Secretary of Food. Having a Secretary of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago, but now only two percent of Americans farm while “100 percent of Americans eat.”

(Check out this good coverage of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who will be the real Secretary of Agriculture.)

There's lots of good stuff in Kristof's column. He says the modern crop subsidy program doesn't help farmers as much as it subsidizes non-farmers. He points out that modern animal confinement operations are environmental disasters. He says we need a reformer as Secretary of Agriculture, someone who will be in charge of food, not farmers. (Remember, there aren't many farmers, so what the hey.)

It's interesting reasoning, but not something we'd want to carry too far. The country has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, too. Maybe we need to ditch the Secretary of Labor and hire on a Secretary of Consumption.

Earlier this week, farmer Richard Oswald wrote that the problem with the USDA isn't its mandate; its subservience to others besides farmers is the problem. What the USDA needs, Oswald contends, is a Secretary of Agriculture who will enforce the law and work for the betterment of rural communities AND urban consumers. (Besides, Richard will tell you, there already is a Secretary of Food. He's the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.)

What concerns us here at the Yonder is how easy it appears now for some to sweep rural America out of the conversation about the future.

Last February, a lead editorial in the New York Times criticized presidential candidates who “fell all over themselves” in catering to rural voters. “By now, many Americans have heard the presidential candidates talk about issues close to the heart of rural Americans,” the Times whined. But the cities have been the “hardest hit as federal polices have failed or gone missing….” And, after all, the cities are “where most Americans live and work.”

The editorial was inspired (directly, I'm told) by Bruce Katz, the director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Katz argues, correctly, that cities are the heart of the nation's economy. The country's 100 largest cities (roughly a third of the total metro areas in the U.S.) account for 75% of the nation's gross domestic product and 65% of the population.

Fine. We know that. Cities have more people than the countryside. America is no longer an agricultural nation. But a simple statement of fact has turned into something meaner — and something that is both harmful and wrong.

The turn came with the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate. Gov. Palin played up her small town roots. Others picked up the theme that small towns had some special hold on American values. For instance, Democratic pollster Peter Hart said of rural voters, “They are America…If you can speak to (them) then you relate to the rest of America.”

(James Gimpel, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, shows that there is some truth to what Palin and Hart say. Gimpel found that 73.4 percent of those living in counties of fewer than 25,000 people say their love of the U.S. is “extremely strong” compared to 46% of those living in counties with more than 300,000.)

The reaction to Palin was swift and rural America was pulled into the fray. Katz and his colleague at Brookings, Jennifer Bradley, wrote an article for The New Republic on Palin and rural America headlined “Village Idiocy.” “The idea that we are a nation of small towns is fundamentally incorrect,” Katz and Bradley wrote, stating the obvious. “America is much bigger than its small towns,” they conclude.

We've gone from a plea for attention to cities in February to a post-Obama-victory country where a respected magazine can write about the “idiocy” of living in a small town. In some cases, the rejection of rural has gotten harsh as people try darned near anything to separate themselves from things rural. For instance….

Developer Bob Young and the Art-Noveau-inspired building he’s putting up in Falls Church, Virginia.
Photo: Falls Church News Press

Nobody would mistake Falls Church, Virginia, for a rural town. Falls Church is “inside the beltway,” an inner suburb of Washington, D.C. It has a subway stop but no Tractor Supply. There's a new building going up in town that is wildly floral. It's got purple flowers, red blooms and green vines. (See photo on this page.) People call it the “flower building.”

The editor of the local paper, the Falls Church News-Press, is apparently anxious that the town cast away any lingering flavor of the time when Falls Church was, in fact, rural and he is looking at the “flower building” as a physical symbol of this change for the urban.

The old Falls Church, according to a December 11 editorial — the town's “village legacy” — is “rooted in slavery and racism…The earliest settlers on land now constituting Falls Church were notorious slaveholders. Their rural, agrarian economic model was perpetuated with racial prejudice and injustice deep into the 20th century.”

The flower building's “Art Nouveau form,” however, “arose in the urban center of Europe and Northeastern U.S. as an aesthetic manifestation of the surging optimism that derived from the breathtaking progress that was the Industrial Revolution.” Sadly, the editorial continues, this period of “progressive, creative forces” was “crushed and rent asunder by the unbelievably destructive Great War, now known as World War I.”

The editorial doesn't say if the “Great War” (or the Holocaust or the next great war) were the product of the “rural, agrarian” model or something more urban. (Nor does he mention how the Industrial Revolution worked out for the 146 factory workers who died in 1911 at the Triangle Factory fire in New York City, one of those “Northeastern U.S.” places of “surging optimism,” unless you were young, female and born in some other country.)

The deeper point of the editorial — and Kristof's column, the Times editorial and the “Village Idiocy” article — is that rural America is backward looking, a has-been place with a defunct economy and a nowhere future. There's not much left in small towns, so no sense bothering with rural policy or programs…or even the entire Department of Agriculture. The good stuff isn't out there, it's in the cities.

This isn't a world I recognize. What we find over and again at the Yonder are the rich connections between rural and urban places. The creation of a rural energy economy is essential for urban growth. A fight by Great Plains ranchers for open cattle markets is essential for city consumers. People flow from rural counties to urban ones to work and live. There is simply no way to decouple rural from urban.

Having lived in both small towns and big cities, I can assure Katz that rural residents spend far more time in urban areas than my city neighbors do in small towns. People come from the countryside to the cities to shop, do business, find specialized health care, attend arts events or visit friends. They are much more comfortable with urbanity than city residents are with rural places.

They understand that rural and urban are neighbors. And neighbors take care of each other.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.