To accomplish this, the food stamp program, which in its inception targeted urban poverty, was tied to farm subsidies. Politicians drawn to a social agenda of feeding America’s neediest citizens would collaborate with pro-big ag business politicians from the corn, soy, and cotton states. Initially, the number of qualifying households in urban areas far exceeded those in rural regions. Now, that’s changed. Since 1995, there has been a measurable increase in the number of rural households that access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
By 2014, 14.6% of rural households received SNAP benefits compared to 11% of urban households.
The funding for most major rural development programming is written into the 2014 Farm Bill, amounting to two one-hundredths of 1% of the Bill’s $489 billion five-year budget. For the sake of comparison, nutritional programs, including SNAP, comprise 80% of the Farm Bill budget, and 19% is used to support and subsidize programs for farmers, including crop insurance payouts and conservation cost share programs. What was historically designed as a tool to address rural development and urban poverty now struggles with a reality where rural poverty and urban development are both on the rise, and there is a grand disconnect between the two.
Without reiterating everything that has been written since the last presidential election, I will simply say yes, the disconnect is real. The lack of commitment to rural development programs is now painfully obvious. And yet, in what may be the most profound irony of all, those living in rural poverty, using SNAP, may themselves also be involved in agriculture. Perhaps the answer lies in tying SNAP money directly to farm businesses in our rural communities, for instance, providing cost-saving incentives to use SNAP to purchase local products.
Federal relief for rural communities, however, is only one element of a solution. In Maine, where farming is experiencing a renaissance, there are young, talented entrepreneurs creating diversified businesses. Young farmers are re-populating Maine’s farmscape, offering promise. These young farmers bring social media know-how and story-telling skills. But reinvigorating rural communities with a fresh agricultural approach will only be successful if those new businesses have a market for selling their products. Here, I see a real pos- sibility of bridging the disconnect between rural development needs and urban market demands.
Outside of federal support programs, the most feasible route to rural development is a concentrated effort to bring urban and suburban communities into the discussion, mobilizing their eagerness to be connected to the land. It will take creativity to market the importance of rural wellness to the populace living in these metro areas. But, looking through the social media lens, I see a captive audience. Leveraging these new avenues of communication, and highlighting Maine’s rural landscapes rich with tillable land and clean water, would be a great step toward defining and connecting authentic values.
Portland, with its solid restaurant culture, is a fine start, but to move the needle Maine also needs to consider the Boston metro area as a major market. Returning Maine to its former status as the breadbasket of New England is a large-scale proposition; but if it is done with an eye towards diverse markets offering fair prices (with or without subsidy) our renewed farming culture will find huge opportunity. Growing successful farms throughout the state creates jobs. Sustainably scaled agriculture can be an economic driver for a region. This is rural development. As a farmer, the best way I can imagine this happening is through building relationships around food and farm products with a market large enough to support the farming potential of the great state of Maine.
As a state and a region, Maine and New England stand poised to lead the way in alleviating rural poverty through federal, state, and local initiatives. We have thoughtful, creative talent in our service organizations and our nonprofits. In Vermont, the Rural Vermont program provides a great example of an effective partner service organization.
They have been successful at marketing the idea of rural wellness throughout the state and have created effective ways to fund their organization. They approach communities to determine their goals and aspirations and then work to leverage the talent within other organizations throughout the state to meet those needs. Maine is rich with organizations that have interest and intentions to support our rural communities and address rural poverty. Unfortunately, the one organization focused solely on rural communities in Maine, the former Maine Rural Partners, closed when its funding dried up. But Maine Farmland Trust, Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, the Maine Farm Bureau, and other like-minded groups have the potential to collaborate on a strong marketing campaign to attract the interest, money, and support of urban centers in Maine and in the Boston metro area, and build markets for Maine’s rurally produced products.
Marketing rural Maine will allow our urban neighbors to participate and be meaningful partners in our cherished heritage. If successful, the original goals of the U.S. Farm Bill, to connect rural development with urban health—to leverage the well-being of all our communities—might finally be met.
stacy brenner lives, farms, and flowers at Broadturn Farm in Scarborough with her husband, John Bliss, and two daughters, Emma and Flora. They raise cut flowers and organic vegetables, host weddings, and operate a summer day camp that connects a young community with nutritious and sustainable food. She’s devoted to understanding and improving farmland preservation, farmland tenancy arrangements, and organic agriculture as an economic driver for Maine. Stacy has worked as a barista, an orchid greenhouse caretaker, a cotton farmer, and a nurse-midwife. She holds degrees in agriculture and nursing. She is a contributor to Taproot Magazine, and is a MOFGA Board Member. Stacy has been farming in Maine since 2002.