Radke: The decline of rural populations
March 9, 2018
In America, we have access to an abundance of some of the safest and most affordable food in the world. It's a luxury we often take for granted. After all, most of us don't have to hunt for meat, forage for fruits and vegetables, churn milk into butter, grind wheat to make bread or spin our own cloth to make clothes.
In fact, most of these tasks would be a foreign concept to the youngest generations of society; someday they might ask us, did people really do that?
Yes, today if you want food in your belly and clothes to wear, you're one stop (or one online click of a button) away from these items. As a result, we also have the luxury to spend our time pursuing other activities — build cities and roads, climb the corporate ladder, grow a family, have the free time for hobbies and use our disposable income to pay a premium for values and ethics that are most important to us.
Without a doubt, it's a privilege to live in America, where we have access to the best, and we can pursue our passions without wondering where our next meal will come from.
A recent article by Daniel Lattier for Intellectual Takeout describes the growing disconnect between urban and rural America.
He writes, "At the time of the America's founding, 95 percent of its population lived on farmland, and only 5 percent lived in urban areas. Fast forward to today, and these numbers have dramatically flip-flopped. Currently, a whopping 81 percent of people live in urban areas and only 19 percent live in rural areas. What is more, only about 1.6 percent of the American labor force is engaged in agriculture.
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"Many of us hear these numbers and are not overly troubled by them. We have a vague idea that this phenomenon has brought us "more efficient" agriculture and cheaper food, and are content with that. Plus, most of us have been raised in and conditioned by urban environments, and have little to no desire to 'return to the land.' But perhaps we should be a bit more troubled by the rural flight."
Looking at today's society, it sometimes feels like producers are from Venus and consumers are from Mars. Much like today's political climate, the urban and rural divide continues to grow, and depending on where you live, your experiences, cultures and values can differ greatly. One is not inherently right while the other is wrong, but if you live on a quiet gravel road with your entire focus on raising food for people while managing the land, can you imagine that your life is different from someone who commutes to work by subway each day, lives in a tall apartment complex and has a Starbucks just across the street?
With these differences in mind, it should come as no surprise that urban and rural consumers experience the economy differently, as well.
According to David Kohl, Virginia Tech professor emeritus, "The growth of the economy is hotter than a pepper sprout, but for how much longer? When the urban and suburban economies are going gangbusters, the ag and rural economies tend to struggle. That is very typical. The ag economy tends to run counter to the general economy."
Perhaps those of us living in rural America need to start thinking through this lens. We know our consumers are three to four generations removed from the family farm, yet we expect them to understand and value what we hold most important. However, because their experiences run so counter to ours, do we really expect them to care about our challenges? Probably not.
It will only be with great advocacy efforts that we can achieve some kind of symbiotic balance. What do our challenges have to do with consumers? Rising grocery prices, for one. We can't begin our arguments with a cry about what this regulation or that media story is doing to us; we need to turn the conversation around to explain what it means to them. Only then will we make headway in connecting the dots between rural and urban America.
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