Some say rural issues could suffer with farm funding programs

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(Host) The U.S. House is considering a $286 billion bill to fund farm programs over the next five years. The legislation includes a safety net for Vermont’s dairy farmers.

But there’s worry the legislation only focuses on farming and not other rural concerns. In fact there’s talk about changing the name of the legislation.

Chad Pergram examines why politicians and most presidential candidates tend to ignore rural issues, except those important to agriculture.

(Pergram) The nation’s political handicappers tuned in Monday night to a new type of presidential forum: A debate where the contenders responded to questions…not from journalists or those in the audience…but video bloggers…who posted their questions on the YouTube internet website.

Here’s a sample…

(Voice #1) "Congressman Kucinich, how would America be better off with you as President?"
(Voice #2) "Do you believe the response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina would have been different if the storm it an affluent, white city?"

(Pergram) And no questions… on rural topics.

Most of the queries seemed to cater to the cyber-dominated demographic on YouTube.

Democratic Vermont Congressman Peter Welch says that’s a problem…when there’s a digital divide between those who live in town and those in the countryside.

(Welch) "Rural America has to have access to broadband. It must be…it’s got to be much like electricity was in the ’30s when you didn’t discriminate on the basis on whether you were urban America or rural America."

(Pergram) Historically, presidential contenders don’t focus much on rural issues. Except of course when they’re trotting through Iowa, clad in a checked, flannel shirt and sitting atop a hay bale for a photo op. Welch says often, politicians only address agriculture…and ignore other issues…

(Welch) "I think the rural issues are much more diverse now than they used to be. And you’re seeing rural communities are having issues related to immigration and unemployment."

(Pergram) Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy used to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee. He authored the 1990 farm bill. Leahy says that package was broader in scope. It addressed conservation and environmental concerns, and not just farming. The senator says this package is tailored too narrowly toward paying farmers, especially corporate farmers, for their crops.

(Leahy) "If it is only on commodity prices, we’re in a catch-22 because the commodity prices are way out of whack with what the budget would stand for. We’re going to have to make some major changes."

(Pergram) Welch says one major change….is the bill’s effort to curb commodity payments to rich farmers.

(Welch) "This farm bill at least begins to do that. It puts an income cap at one million dollars. Quite frankly, I think that’s a bit too high. But it’s a lot less than that two-and-a-half million."

(Pergram) Farmers used to be able to rake in federal dollars if they made less than two-and-a-half million dollars a year Again, Peter Welch.

(Welch) "Five crops get billions of dollars. And much of it goes to farmers whose incomes…these are not family farmers. They’re rich individuals or corporations."

(Pergram) Agriculture has long been big business. It’s a pool for campaign cash. And some rural studies experts speculate that’s why politicians only talk about farming…and ignore other rural issues.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Chad Pergram on Capitol Hill.

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