Like many folks, I have been wrestling with some of the questions Secretary Tom Vilsack posed recently regarding the future of rural America, citing the recent farm bill process. In December, at the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C., and in subsequent speeches around the country, Secretary Vilsack contended that rural America “is becoming less relevant” in Washington and that it’s time “for an adult conversation” on that topic.

Indeed, the Secretary has given those of us who are from and care about rural America a lot to chew on. For me, Secretary Vilsack’s challenge underscores the need for those of us who care about the land and the bounty that it produces to listen carefully and to observe keenly the changes going on around us.  How we respond to the difficulty in passing a farm bill will give us a good early test to see if we are heeding warning signals that lie before us.

My focus, quite naturally, is on America’s greatest natural resource – our farmland.  More people than ever seem to care deeply about how their food is produced and what kind of care we give the land.   Finding means to continuously improve how we farm is positive action that shows the public that we are deeply committed to securing a “clean,” as well as a productive, future for agriculture. 

Congressional agriculture leaders in the last Congress served up a set of conservation proposals that were reasonable, reformed and cost-effective.   It was an area where agricultural and environmental interests were strongly unified.  That unity can serve as a good example of what a coalition of broadly based interests can do to connect with the public’s interest and secure the political support necessary to pass a farm bill when they work toward mutual goals

Conservation of our land doesn’t happen by accident. It takes careful planning and management. It requires financial resources, some of which come from farmers and some from others with an interest in conserving soil and water. The dividends that come from this shared investment of time, effort and resources will accrue to the benefit of people on and off of the farm.

When everything works, the soil is healthier, the water is cleaner, wildlife is more plentiful and the farmer’s bottom line is improved. This is an important model as we look for ways in which the farm bill is to be relevant to more people and to serve the broader public interest. It is worth noting that for years the farm bill has been considered the product of coalition politics.  The federal Food Stamp Program was added into the 1977 Farm Bill, just three years before American Farmland Trust was founded.  Adding nutrition into the farm bill codified for subsequent omnibus farm bills the political relationship between food commodity support and nutrition programs.  That relationship, however, has always been a parallel partnership.  Both sides count on the other to achieve their own distinct goals.  Over the same more than three decades, however, conservation has evolved into a true mutual coalition.

Going into this new year, agriculture and rural stakeholders are in a period of reassessing what is needed to pass a farm bill in the current political climate. What held up the farm bill can perhaps be attributed to election-year politics, or to the year-end fiscal debate. Or perhaps Secretary Vilsack is right, and we simply don’t have the muscle we once did to push a bill through.  Whatever the reasons, there is simply too much at stake to allow this legislation that represents one of the single largest investments in rural America to languish.

What is needed more than ever is a unified and strong voice. That voice needs to include those who may not live on the farm but care deeply about what our farms and ranches produce and how it is produced. As the 113th Congress begins its work anew on a farm bill, let’s take a deep breath and reflect on what most benefits our national interest.

Conservation is absolutely relevant to the public good, both on-farm and off. Long, hard work went into building that shared perspective.  There is a need to build these same coalitions of mutual interest between agricultural policy and nutrition, trade and energy to keep future farm bills relevant.

About the author: Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau for 25 years.  He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.



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