Editorial: Is Rappahannock irrelevant?

“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said last week at a Big Washington forum sponsored by the Farm Journal. Rural Americans, he warned, are in danger of “becoming less and less relevant.”

“It’s time for a different thought process.”

Rural America’s biggest assets – the food supply, recreational areas and energy – are often overlooked or taken for granted by U.S. citizens, Vilsack pointed out, as the U.S. population shifts ever more to cities, their suburbs and exurbs.

While rural areas like Rappahannock County account for roughly 90 percent of America’s land, only about 16 percent of the U.S. population actually lives in rural America. The remaining 84 percent live in cities, suburbs and exurbs.

It was not always so. Indeed, founding father Thomas Jefferson believed the new nation’s then largely agrarian population was its very strength. “Once we start piling on top of ourselves in cities as in Europe, then we will start devouring each other as in Europe,” he famously predicted.

Today, Congress can’t even pass a farm bill. Despite the fact that rural America overwhelmingly votes Republican, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is captive to lobbyists and campaign contributors who care little about real farmers. Unlike agricultural industrialists and their lobbyists, real farmers are, in the words of Vilsack, “becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”

Rural politics today plays to “wedge issues” such as regulation. Remember the uproar created earlier this year by our own congressman, among others, over the idea that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was going to start regulating farm dust, even though the Obama administration had said repeatedly it had no so such intention?

To the weekend observer, Rappahannock looks to be the very embodiment of Jefferson’s agrarian ideal. But how many Rappahannock residents remain real farmers? And of those, how many are played by the politicians and the trade groups supposedly representing farmers’ interests? Or is today’s Rappahannock a kind of rural Potemkin village?

Something to think about.

Walter Nicklin