Crossing the agricultural divide

The population disparity between urban and rural America is bigger than ever.

As recently as 2015, 47 million adults out of the country’s 323 million-plus population lived in rural America. Consequently, the communication gap and misperceptions are as large as they’ve ever been.

But, there are people and groups trying to close that gap.

The gap

Russ Green is a former Omaha-based leader of Claas North America operations, now living in Lexington, Ken., and working for AGCO Corp. Agriculture is important in both states and he’s had a chance to talk about the rural/urban divide with folks on both sides of the city boundary. He’s of the opinion that the gap will likely continue to grow, albeit in a minimal way.

“With every generation, we have fewer people who make their living directly from agriculture,” he said on the phone from his home office in Kentucky. “People can get a little shortsighted because they think of agriculture as cows, plows and sows, but they have no idea it’s so much more than that.”

That said, there are urbanites who understand agriculture because they grew up with it, he added.

“They baled hay, culled hogs, raised turkeys or drove a tractor,” he said.

But the number of those with direct experience on the farm or ranch will continue to diminish. Consumers want healthy food, but there’s an imbalance between those who provide the food and know the origin of it, and those that deliver meals and eat them.

Misconceptions

Rene Blauhorn is a lawyer in Palmer, Neb., who has a unique perspective on the divide between rural and urban America.

She’s lived it.

Blauhorn was born and raised in Omaha, a city of almost 467,000. The population in Palmer is 477. There was culture shock when she got married and moved to a small town. She’s seen the misconceptions that both sides have about each other.

“I see some unfortunate stereotypes,” Blauhorn said. “Rural folks sometimes have the impression that urban people don’t work hard to earn their living. You have to remember that urban people do work hard, it’s just in a different way than folks in rural America. Sitting at a desk all day working with your mind can be very taxing, too.”

Blauhorn found out firsthand how little she knew about farming when she left Omaha for Palmer, about 130 miles west. She admitted to having no idea how much math and science are involved in farming.

One of the bigger misconceptions that urban America has about rural folks is that they can sometimes be “hillbillies.”

“Rural Americans should get a lot more credit than they do from city people,” she said. “They aren’t all just uneducated farmers out here. Folks out here, including farmers, are mechanics, businesspeople, agronomists, and have a wide range of education and skills. There are many more agricultural degrees than city people realize.”

A vast number of people in urban areas have no experience with farm life, except for what they might see in a documentary on TV. One of the biggest misconceptions those folks have might come from news stories on the farm bill, Green said.

He saw people reacting on social media when they learned that farmers got support from tax dollars and crop insurance. But the farm bill is about more than just farmers.

“They want to know why they need to support a farmer’s wage when no one is supporting their wage and guaranteeing income,” he said. “What they don’t know is less than 12 percent of the farm bill deals with those topics. Eighty-eight percent of the farm bill goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.”

Closing the gap

There are people and organizations who are trying to close the gap between urban and rural America. Blauhorn got involved in the LEAD (Leadership/Education/Action/ Development) Program designed to educate each side about the other. She hopes many more people from inside and outside of agriculture will get involved in it.

She noted the program’s diversity. Thirty leaders from across the business spectrum that interact with agriculture are selected every year to go through the class. They include bankers, lawyers, people that work in agricultural markets, on the corn board, the soybean board or other organizations. There are people from cities like Omaha and Lincoln, as well as farmers and grain handlers.

“They talk a lot about ag across Nebraska and how everyone can be a leader for agriculture in their communities,” Blauhorn said.

The program is a big help to professionals like her who didn’t grow up on a farm, she said.

Blauhorn does work in estate planning, real estate and farm business.

“It helped me understand a great deal more about where they’re coming from as they sit across the desk from me,” she said.

Green was involved in a similar type of program when he was chairman of the Agriculture Council at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. It took business professionals and introduced them directly to the world of Nebraska agriculture.

“We took around 30 industrialists from Omaha out to West Point, Nebraska,” he said. “We introduced those folks to the rural lifestyle out in Cuming County. The next year, we took around 30 Cuming County residents directly into Omaha to see the lifestyle in the city. We went to places like Union Pacific to see how they manage their trains, as well as the Strategic Air Command Air Force Base.”

Opportunity is there

“Farmers, being a small part of the population, need to put a lot more time and energy into ag literacy and ag awareness,” Blauhorn said. “The opportunity for education is there, it just takes as many people as possible to get involved. It’s important that people on each side of the divide accept the other and not necessarily try to change who they are and the way they do things. It’s OK to be open to new ideas, even if you don’t fully understand them.”

Green said a divide remains, but people who care about that divide have ways and means to close it. He said there’s never been a better time for agriculture to get out and tell urban folks what it’s all about. People are more interested in where their food comes from than at any other time in history.

“I think that people are willing to listen because they all want a sustainable, affordable and safe food supply,” he said. “That comes from agriculture. People may not realize it, but they celebrate agriculture three times a day.”

Chad Smith can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.