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What Lessons Might the U.S. Learn from European Rural Policy?

Farm Business Management Update, April 2000

By David Lamie

"Metropolitan areas have been and will continue to be the drivers of economic growth in the United States" was the message delivered recently by National Association of Counties (NACO) President Vernon Gray in a recent edition of County News. Similar messages are heard across the globe. However, economic growth occurs unevenly across the geographic landscape and rural areas do not necessarily share in this economic prosperity. The European Union has jumped out front of many nations, including the United States, in implementing policy and programs that recognize these facts. Little doubt exists that Europeans value their rural countryside and are willing to take steps to nurture it. Will the United States take similar measures?

Clearly, farm policy does not address all of the needs of rural areas. With increasing amounts of off-farm employment, the livelihood of farm families may be more dependent upon what goes on in nearby towns and cities than what goes on in their fields. This dependence is as true in Europe as it is in the United States. But, the Europeans have gone the next step to explicitly incorporate rural development objectives into their mainstream agricultural policy. In the United States, we are only beginning to consider such measures. Is there hope for rural interests in the United States? Are there lessons to be drawn from the European experience?

State Rural Development Councils currently exist in 36 states. With sufficient interest, they could eventually be in all 50 states. State Rural Development Councils hold great potential to influence state policy toward enhancing the quality of life in the rural areas of their respective states. Furthermore, the National Rural Development Partnership has the potential to affect national policy by facilitating exchanges between State Councils and federal agencies about specifically rural issues. What role might they play in shaping a U.S. rural policy?

Another resource for support of rural development initiatives is Cooperative Extension. Cooperative Extension at Land Grant Universities, which are in all 50 states, have a long-standing tradition of providing rural communities with the types of grassroots educational programs they need to be successful. Certainly the level of support for these programs varies widely across states. But the ability of Cooperative Extension to bring together broadly based coalitions of rural interests should not be ignored. What role might Cooperative Extension play in shaping rural policy?

Given that non-agricultural rural interests are fragmented, enormous energies must be spent to aggregate these interests into a coherent constituency. The formation of a rural constituency will likely take the concerted efforts of several key players. Could it be that the key players are assembling? Academic circles are abuzz with dialogue on rural policy. The Congressional Rural Caucus has been resurrected. Déjà vu? What is different now? Where will all of these discussions lead? Who will listen?

For a more complete discussion of what might be learned from European rural policy and where the dialogue on U.S. rural policy is being generated, see the article by Dave Lamie, along with those of others, at the National Association of Counties Rural Action Caucus web site,

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