Making Rural America Great Again

White, conservative, out of touch, boring. Such popular descriptions flatten rural areas, dismissing them in favor of cities better positioned to fulfill the American promise. Yet they miss the complex and consequential reality of rural America today. In Iowa, where I teach and work with local farmers, supposedly isolated and simple rural communities are fundamental to the global trade networks of commodity agriculture. Farm communities are international communities, and immigrants are simultaneously welcomed and reviled as workers in crop production, animal confinement operations, and processing plants.  Moreover, farmers are well aware of the complicated outside forces that define modern agriculture, from federal policy to global commodity prices. They grapple with policies that encourage both extractive agricultural practices and conservation.

Like agriculture, social scientists’ attention to rural America has been marked by boom and bust. In the 1990s, following the farm crisis, social scientists briefly attempted to understand agriculture (Barlett 1993; Dudley 2000) and the rise of the rural ghetto (Davidson 1996). Sociologists Thomas Lyson and William Falk (1993, 264) wrote that rural people “are more affected by than influential upon important political decisions.” The 2016 presidential election offers a stark counternarrative, inciting an emboldened and newly influential rural voice.

While farmers mostly voted for Donald Trump, much of his platform is not favorable to agriculture. Changes in immigration policy would reduce the number of farm workers, especially in the dairy and hog industries. Trump’s rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements will affect grain exports important to commodity farmers. On the flip side, Trump’s stance on environmental regulations, particularly water-quality oversight, was favored by the agricultural industry, which promotes voluntary initiatives over more coercive ones.

These contradictions are reflected in farmers’ perspectives. The first farmer I heard from following the election is a community-supported agriculture (CSA) and farmers’ market grower. She emailed me to ask if I would serve as a job reference for her, as she fears for her family’s future access to health insurance. She felt both nervous and mobilized, writing “we recognize that we've done a lot from a farming and sustainability point, but we need to be more vocal and aggressive (in a kind way) with our mission. We also recognize that we can't do it alone; we need to leverage our crew members. We’re thinking about giving our employees paid volunteer hours—if they want to sit on a board, help at a food pantry, read to kids, etc. Anything to help get our message and people into the community.” Another wrote to me that Trump will likely be “against the ethanol mandate, crop insurance subsidies, conservation funding . . . [and] is wrong on trade for farming . . . the only bone I heard him throw out were vague references to getting rid of regulation.” A third dryly noted, “there is still a lot of racism in rural Iowa.”

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An Iowa CSA farmer explains sustainability. Photo by Brandi Janssen.

Some who favored Trump have concerns, even as they support his economic platform. One farmer, who has won several conservation awards on her three hundred acres, said that she “has a wait-and-see attitude” about environmental protection. She has used several federally funded conservation programs to support her farming practices. But, she said, from a “business standpoint within a free trade and enterprise system, I think it will be a good administration.” Another, whose row-crop farm uses no-till methods and cover crops, which are common soil conservation methods, fully supported Trump. He says “the rural economy will benefit when the economy grows.” He is confident that Trump’s trade policies will increase U.S. manufacturing, so that he “will now be able to find products in the stores that are made in America.”

Farmers do not see their rural livelihoods as isolated from the rest of the global economy, despite their geographic separation. Farms are first businesses, whose products support complex processing and distribution networks that employ and feed people. So an administration that will boost the economy generally will increase demand for their products, benefiting them even if federal support for agriculture is reduced or trade policy constricts commodity markets.

Of course, even farmers want to feel connected to their candidate. One farmer referenced above also told me: “The first Trump rally I attended in Cedar Rapids sealed the deal for me. Trump came on the stage and said ‘Merry Christmas.’ Everyone went wild.”

Despite their ubiquity as the embodiment of American values, farmers make up only about 2 percent of the national population and 5 percent of the Iowa workforce. Rural communities are not and cannot be supported only by agriculture. Schools, hospitals, and elder-care facilities employ many more people than farming. In early December, I attended the annual conference of the Iowa Rural Health Association, where the election and the future of health care were foremost on everyone’s minds. One speaker described the interconnections between health care policy, providers and facilities, and rural communities. Some fourteen percent of total employment in rural areas is related to health care, he noted, which makes up closer to 20 percent of the rural economy. Then the speaker reminded us that Donald Trump was mostly elected by rural America. As such, the speaker reasoned, his presidency is an opportunity for rural advocates to hold his administration accountable to lift up America’s forgotten places. This is our chance, he asserted, to “make rural America great again.”

Our job as anthropologists is to make sense of this sentiment, to find the sociocultural logic that scaffolds support for an administration whose policies seem inconsistent. Farmers want personal independence and overall economic growth that will increase access to their products without government interference. But they also want support, in the form of federal crop insurance and conservation programs, and cultural recognition, reflected in the desire to hear someone simply say “merry Christmas.” Rural America is not only about farmers; health-care providers, educators, and those who remain in manufacturing are also part of the economic and social web of rural life. Culture is inherently contradictory. It is our job to take rural people seriously and to understand these spaces that remain isolated yet global, forgotten even as they are undeniably influential.

References

Barlett, Peggy. 1993. American Dreams, Rural Realities: Family Farms in Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Davidson, Osha Gray. 1996. Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Dudley, Kathryn Marie. 2000. Debt and Dispossession: Farm Loss in America’s Heartland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lyson, Thomas A., and William W. Falk. 1993. “Forgotten Places: Poor Rural Regions in the United States.” In Forgotten Places: Uneven Development in Rural America, edited by Thomas A. Lyson and William W. Falk, 1–6. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.