Until recently, I would have considered it a rank impossibility that I could hold a lower opinion of our nation's Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack. But in condescending remarks to the Farm Journal Forum on Dec. 6, he unleashed a "Dutch uncle" lecture at rural America that lowered him even further.
"It's time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America. It's time for a different thought process here," he admonished. "You will hear this speech... until it finally percolates down and starts to penetrate."
Why the need to "talk down"? Does Vilsack perceive rural people in some prejudicial, stereotypical, archaic context; perhaps as "rubes" or "dumb farmers"?
Vilsack claims young people are leaving rural America because of a lack of "diversity" caused by its being too closely aligned to the Republican Party and being "reactive" rather than "proactive" in outlook. He foresees country kids being tempted away to the bright lights of the several contents by the vast opportunities in the global marketplace. He berates rural America for neglecting to create opportunities to hold its young people. He bemoans rural America loosing political "relevance" with the rest of the nation and, somehow, being left behind. He notes that our military is lopsided with able recruits from rural America and that our national value system's roots draw deeply from the spirit of rural America, yet he concludes rural youth is abandoning its birthplace.
The reality, had Vilsack the sagacity to confront it, is far different: rural kids are not forsaking their rural homes; they are being exiled from them by the very policies Vilsack has built his ag. policy career on.
Ignored are inconvenient details: several decades of "the cheap food policy" that destroyed the dreams of two generations of aspiring young U.S. farmers. This created the evils of industrialized farming: fewer farmers on huge mono-crop farms getting ever bigger and, ironically, ever less diverse. Current national farm policy resulted in unsustainable commodity prices that often cannot even return the farmers' production costs. These are the true causes of rural depopulation and the decline of America's small towns, not the contrived imaginings of Vilsack's clueless thought processes.
According to Vilsack, America's farmers are doing just fine: record farm income, record farmland values - and for current corn and soybean farmers, he's correct. However, the desperate plight of America's livestock farmers is overlooked.
Continuing to blame unsustainable livestock feed prices on last year's drought, he disingenuously refuses to connect the problem to its original source - the Obama administration's slavish adherence to the Renewable Fuel Standard. This creates a government policy-contrived class of "winners," (corn and soybean farmers) whose prosperity starkly contrasts with a class of policy-created "losers," (livestock farmers) brought about by the Obama Administration's poorly designed social engineering. This fiasco is developing a situation whose folly will make no more historical sense than Mao Tse-tung's infamous "Cultural Revolution" of 1960s Communist China.
This secret will not keep, as significant numbers of America's poultrymen, dairy farmers and livestock producers complete their downward financial spiral into insolvency. With this loss of crucial farms will come shortages and rapidly inflating consumer prices for eggs, meat and dairy products. The administration's farm policy incompetence is destined to be painfully revealed at supermarket checkouts.
Vilsack has no practical background in farming or agri-business. A Pittsburgh native, trained in the law, transplanted to his wife's hometown, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, he was there vetted in politics. After two terms as Iowa governor, he was elevated to his current position by a president as blissfully ignorant of rural America as he is.
Vilsack's latest remarks unmask a contemptuous view of rural Americans. His sense of moral superiority and lack of respect deprives him of the common touch, so crucial to the office he holds. This fatally handicaps and effectively distances him from any empathy for America's iconic family farmers. His tenure at the Agriculture Department portends failure.
Despite Mr. Vilsack's peculiar opinions, rural America, albeit seriously challenged, is every bit as relevant today as ever. If Vilsack craves this "adult conversation," he should engage rural America straightaway. He will find there people accustomed to a braying "jackass" as well as a hornet's nest of adult "folks" of a divergent point of view, just itching to have this conversation. The point that awaits being driven home to Mr. Vilsack is that it is not rural America but he, our impertinent, incompetent Secretary of Agriculture, that lacks relevance.
Nate Wilson, 65, is retired from 40 years of dairying on a small grassland farm in the beautiful hills of Chautauqua County.