In America, we have access to an abundance to 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 the 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.
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. It’s pretty amazing, and if you live in the concrete jungle of urban America, it might be easy to think that these items that are critical components for our very survival simply come from a store instead of from a farm or ranch in rural America.
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% of its population lived on farmland, and only 5% lived in urban areas. Fast forward to today, and these numbers have dramatically flip-flopped. Currently, a whopping 81% of people live in urban areas and only 19% live in rural areas. What is more, only about 1.6% of the American labor force is engaged in agriculture.
“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.”
Lattier describes how the decline of agrarian cultures has impacted civilizations dating back to the original Greek and Roman populations. Once societies deem themselves as sufficient in the areas of food, shelter, water and clothing, they begin to pursue more commercial interests; however, Lattier says this can be a blessing and a curse as the populations start to take agriculture and its importance in society for granted.
He referenced this Thomas Jefferson quote about British commercialism as an example: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds… I consider the class of artificers as the panders of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are overturned... I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural.”
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 to 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.”
This difference in the economy can be tied to things like the strength of the dollar and oil prices.
As reported by Sherry Bunting for Farmshine, Kohl recently spoke at an agricultural meeting where he told attendees, “When the dollar is stronger, we are in a weaker position to trade commodities. When the dollar is weaker, it picks up inflation, so we have to watch out for higher interest rates. We are well into this period of low flat interest rates, but that is about to change.”
He added, “We are now the energy leader in the world, so other nations can’t control us anymore; 8 out of every 10 dollars spent on the farm business are connected to oil. The demand side is changing. People are moving to cities and using public transportation; 31% of people aged 18 to 25 do not have a driver’s license.”
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.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.