Penn Farm
Candidates discuss agriculture and think they are addressing all of rural America. Maybe it’s because the farms are so darn pretty, like this dairy operation outside Somerset, Pennsylvania.

The campaign staff for Sen. Barack Obama held a telephone conference call yesterday (Wednesday) to discuss the candidate’s rural agenda. I don’t know if those on the call learned much about an agenda, but we did hear a lot about mushroom farms.

The call came from Pennsylvania, which is not a particularly rural state, but Obama is trying to overcome his recent comments about the relative bitterness of small town residents. (See Dee Davis’s commentary and comments here; and Judy Owens’ column here.) The phone conference was one of several ways the Obama campaign is showing that the candidate is in touch with rural America.

The phone call lasted, I’m guessing, 45 minutes. We listened to 40 minutes about agriculture. In a call meant to show that the candidate was knowledgeable about small towns, I learned that the campaign, at least, was stuck with an outdated, cliched view of what’s going on in rural communities. It was a baffling experience.

Farms equal rural, right? Well, it’s a beginning, but, but….

There are about 2 million people living in rural Pennsylvania. Half of those residents are employed, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And of those working, only 6.5 percent are employed directly in farm production. They work the fields, process food or handle fertilizer or farm equipment.

That’s it. The total farm and ag-related employment in Pennsylvania accounts for one out of every 15 jobs the state’s rural counties. Sure, there are spillovers and Pennsylvania would be far poorer without a vibrant farm economy, but ag still accounts for only 6.5 percent of the area’s direct employment.

(This is a bit lower than the national figure, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. In all of rural America, farm production, handling farm “inputs” like seed and pesticides and food processing and marketing account for 10 percent of all rural jobs — 3.5 percent of all jobs in the country.)

The Obama phone call began with a staffer running through the campaign’s rural platform. Sen. Obama wants to change the milk marketing program, supply small business with some technical assistance and we were told the candidate had refused donations from oil company lobbyists. (We were told this was a rural issue because people in small towns use a lot of gas.) We were directed to Obama’s rural platform, 14 pages that range from meth labs to confined animal feeding operations.

The star of the telephone show was former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle. The former Senate Majority Leader told us that “at the core of Barack Obama’s economic plan is agriculture…This is the heart and soul of what Barack wants to talk about and what he wants to do.”

Daschle knows his ag, Plainsman that he is, and he ran through the issues: problems in the farm bill, the power of large “special interests;” the “importance of real family agriculture.” Daschle mentions twice that Pennsylvania has mushroom farms.

The Obama staffer returned to talk about “clean coal” and fair trading for the steel industry. We’re told Obama respects the Second Amendment. And then the call was over.

All the proposals Daschle talked about were fine and dandy — the guy knows his stuff.

But Obama’s rural handlers spent 90 percent of a conversation about rural Pennsylvania talking about an economy that provides only 6.5 percent of the rural jobs — a ratio rhetoric to relevance that, unfortunately, has held steady through much of this campaign.

Okay, okay, talking about farms is an easy shorthand for candidates to show their concern for rural communities — and campaigns are all about talking in code. Both remaining Democratic candidates have their rural platforms. Obama’s is here. Clinton’s is here.

But we are days before a crucial primary in Pennsylvania. The economy of the state is in shreds. A 2003 Brookings Institution report on the state tells how sprawl from the state’s cities is chewing up Pennsylvania’s countryside. The state is deindustrializing both in small towns and urban centers. Pennsylvania is losing its youngest and most educated citizens. Most of the state has lost income relative to the rest of the country over the last 30 years.

A little over ten percent of all the jobs in rural America are on farms or in food processing — and we’re told that the “core” of Obama’s rural platform is agriculture.

It would be nice, some day soon, to learn that all the candidates know something about the whole apple.

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