[imgcontainer right] [img:ppPKf.jpeg] [source]Austin American-Statesman[/source] Texas rice farmer Aaron Simon in 1948. Texas rice farmers used to rule the legislature. Not any more. After protests from upstream cities, water was cut off to coastal rice growers both last year and this year. Is this another example of ag’s declining influence in state capitols and in Congress? [/imgcontainer]

Agriculture is “obviously not on their radar screen,” Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson said of Congress. “The president and his people I don’t think even get it.”

The Politico writes about how “agriculture has slipped from” the Washington, D.C., picture. President Obama “skipped over farmers entirely in his State of the Union,” never mentioning agriculture or the yearlong statement in Congress over the Farm Bill, writes David Rogers.

This is a long-running story in rural America, one that has been highlighted in warnings from Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, who has talked about agriculture’s diminishing power in recent speeches. Rogers notes that everyone went gaga over the Super Bowl ad featuring farmers, but nobody seems to want to deal with farmers in the flesh. Rogers writes:

Contrast that (the Super Bowl hype) with Washington where in the middle of the worst drought in a generation, no farm bill was even brought to the floor of the House — an unprecedented delay for which Republicans paid little at the ballot box. Indeed, the year ended with Obama washing his hands of the whole matter and allowing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to pen a nine-month extension that infuriated many dairy farmers and left the two Ag committees out in the cold.

What is it that Chrysler sees that Washington doesn’t? Are these just modern Mad Men selling pickups to suburban men with farm fantasies?

Or is something bigger happening here in power politics? And is there a lesson that farmers themselves must learn from if they are to better market their importance to American consumers — and voters?

Besides the First Lady’s vegetable garden, the White House doesn’t bother much with agriculture, Rogers notes. 

It used to be that regional newspapers covered this issue and made it a national priority. No longer, Rogers writes:

The decline of regional newspapers — which were the heart of the old farm press — contributes to this isolation. Major publications largely ignored the farm bill debate last year, while many of the most experienced Ag reporters have migrated to more niche, subscriber-funded newsletters.

The decline of ag’s influence has real consequences for rural communities. Asher Price at the Austin (TX) American-Statesman has been writing good stories about the conflict between Texas rice farmers and urban water needs. A few decades ago, rice farmers got the water they needed. They had the political power in the legislature to bend the law to their favor.

No longer, Price writes. For the second straight year, Texas rice farmers won’t make a crop, as water is being used to supply upstream cities. Price writes:

Cutting off water to downstream agricultural customers says as much about a change in how Texas has shifted from a farming state to an urban one and the attendant slow, steady diminishing of political power among agricultural interests as it does about the persistent drought.

Rice was once king of the Colorado, a form of farming that took root when there was far less competition for water. 

Urban lawns and lakeside homes rule in Texas now. It’s been a long time coming, as Price writes:

The slow exodus of agricultural power began in the mid-1960s, after the redrawing of political districts to comply with the one-person-one-vote rule. Suddenly, lawmakers from rural areas had to carry far vaster geographic areas to represent the same number of people as ones from urban districts. And, to compound matters, cities now had more lawmakers.

The fading of agricultural power “has been slowly playing out since then,” veteran syndicated Texas politics columnist Dave McNeely said in an interview.

In 1910, 76 percent of Texans lived in rural areas and 24 percent in urban ones; by 2010, 85 percent of Texans lived in cities and 15 percent in rural areas.

“When you walk into an office (at the Capitol) and say you come from an agricultural organization, ones that represent irrigated agriculture, there are definitely offices where the respect factor that was there 20, 30 years ago is definitely not there,” said J Allen Carnes, who owns Winter Garden Produce, a vegetable growing and shipping business in the Uvalde area. “There’s just more work you have to do with lawmakers these days coming from agricultural than you had to do 20 years ago — or 50 years ago.”

So, the President isn’t interested in farming communities. Neither is Congress. Nor are state legislatures.

So what happens now?

Before the Drought, the Flood — The Mississippi River flood of 2011 caused $2.8 billion in damage, hitting 119 counties in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. 

The flood damaged or destroyed 21,000 homes and businesses and 1.2 million acres of ag land. 

Coal Plants Closing — American Electric Power agreed to close three coal-fired power plants (in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky) in what the Washington Post said was “the latest sign of how the nation’s electricity supply is shifting away from coal.” 

AEP will invest $5 billion to install pollution controls on other plants and replace a portion of the supply it is losing with new wind and solar investments in Indiana and Michigan.

Limited Access — Another story out about the struggle rural communities continue to face in getting reliable and affordable broadband internet connections. 

Testing Cantaloupes — The Food and Drug Administration warned cantaloupe farmers and packers that the agency would be inspecting and testing melons for pathogens this year. 

The Denver Post reports that the FDA does not routinely target an industry for special scrutiny and that inspectors have rarely gone to small farms or small packers. But recent outbreaks of listeria and salmonella in the fruit have led to the crackdown.

Missouri/Kansas Tax Showdown — Missouri and Kansas appear to be competing to see who can lower taxes the most.

The latest bid comes from a Missouri Senate committee that voted to cut taxes close to $2 billion. The state senator who sponsored the cut said it would make the state more competitive with Kansas, which slashed state income taxes last year. 

Kansas is now facing a state budget shortfall of nearly $2.5 billion over the next five years.

Pre-K in Mississippi — A report from a Delta school in Quitman County finds that pre-K education matters. 

“Pre-k makes such a difference,’’ said Quitman’s principal, Michael Cormack. “Just having that additional year, that early year, is an opportunity [for kids] to get acclimated.’’

More Oil, More Flights — Delta is adding more flights between the Twin Cities and Dickinson, North Dakota (pop. 18,000). The airline is trying to serve the demand caused by the N.D. oil boom. 

Montana Mine Disaster — Seventy years ago a methane gas explosion at a Montana coal mine killed 75 men. 

The explosion at the Montana Coal and Iron Co.’s Smith Mine between Bearcreek and Washoe was massive, powerful enough to blow a 20 ton locomotive off its tracks. But the explosion was so deep underground that it was not felt at the surface. The only sign anyone had that something had happened was smoke pouring out of a ventilation shaft. The miners were nearly a mile underground.

It took over a week to recover all those who had died. The disaster left 58 widows and 125 children. 

And Buffalo Creek — This is the anniversary of two coal disasters, actually. The Smith mine disaster, above, and 41 years ago a series of coal slurry dams on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, West Virginia, failed. The resulting wall of water killed 125 people, injured 1,100 and left 4,000 people homeless.

Ken Ward Jr. has a story here

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