July 9, 2007
A couple of weeks ago Senator Hillary Clinton addressed the National Rural Assembly via a video link-up. This gathering of 400-people, part of the Kellogg Foundation’s Rural People, Rural Policy initiative, was an effort to highlight the issues facing rural areas, and to broaden the discussion beyond agriculture policy, which has generally been the focus of rural policy efforts. To that end, during the Q&A session following her talk, Senator Clinton was asked by one participant if she, as President, would consider changing the name and mission of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Rural Affairs. To her credit, she said yes, she believed that would be a terrific idea.
Now, I’m a little amazed at her reaction, and I hope it wasn’t just a throwaway line to feed the crowd. And I have to say I’m a little amazed that, from what I’ve seen, there’s been little or no reaction to this in the U.S. rural press (let me know if I’m missing it). Historically agriculture interests, and specifically commodity producers, have ruled the debate on rural policy issues. Looking at the current farm bill debate, I think we can say that hasn’t changed much, yet. Most people would tell you that it’s not going to change anytime soon. I wonder if the fact that Ms. Clinton’s remarks haven’t drawn much fire indicates that the status of ag in rural policy is beginning to change? The reality is that rural doesn’t mean ag in the way it used to in the United States. Rural issues cover a much broader swipe now than they used to, and our policy structures need to change to reflect that. I think a change as basic as renaming the Department of Agriculture would be a great place to start - the names we put on things define how we think about those things.