Rural Legislators Dig In



As farming communities dry up, so does their influence in statehouses, pushing rural lawmakers to ask: ‘What’s more important than food?’

By Mark Wolf

You have to leave the blacktop to get to Representative Jerry Sonnenberg’s place. Visitors must turn off a pock-marked stretch of Colorado 61 near Sterling, a city of about 15,000 in the flatlands of northeast Colorado, then travel about a mile on two county roads. They’ll pass at least one sign that warns the road is not plowed from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m., which can make the winter driving tedious at best, treacherous at worst. 

Sonnenberg’s home, bought by his grandfather in 1937, has housed four generations, two of whom have sent a member to the Colorado General Assembly in Denver.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg feeding a horseJust west of the house, a hulking green farm implement sits in a field, testament that the Sonnenbergs are firmly in the green (John Deere) equipment camp, as opposed to the red (Case-International Harvester). It is a distinction not taken lightly out here, where a reliable tractor is almost a member of the family.

 Sonnenberg, a Republican, represents a 10,690-square-mile expanse so vast a crow would need steroids to traverse it. His district is bigger than nine states and about the size of Maryland. Sonnenberg farms and ranches about 4,500 acres and is the only member of the 65-seat House actively engaged in farming.

Four states to the east, Senator Richard Young (D) of Indiana also farms, but he’s always had a second job to afford raising his family in the country. His parents’ farm house has been renovated and converted into a vacation rental, where guests can feed the goats and gather chicken eggs. “It gives the kids a little bit of an opportunity to rebuild that relationship with the land,” says Young.

A Loss of Clout

Young’s district encompasses parts of six counties in the rolling hills of southern Indiana. It’s nowhere near the size of Sonnenberg’s, yet the challenges are similar, starting with rural America’s diminished clout in legislatures. As farm communities shrink, many who represent them feel they must fight for a seat at the table in what they believe are urban-centric statehouses.

 “City people don’t understand the issues out here,” says Sonnenberg, who cites gun rights, renewable energy mandates and water policy as examples where rural and urban interests collide. “There is such a lack of ties to agriculture today. Fifty years ago you might have had a grandfather or an uncle on the farm you could have related to, but now so many of our urban cousins don’t even have that,” he says.

Fifty years ago, rural areas also held considerably more sway in legislatures, a tradition going back to the country’s founding, when districts were drawn to be similar in physical size, affording rural lawmakers outsized influence. But the Supreme Court changed that in the 1960s when it ruled legislative districts had to have roughly equal populations to ensure the principle of one person, one vote. In the most recent reapportionment in 2011, eastern Colorado’s three sparsely populated House districts were consolidated into two, a pattern seen across rural America.

Where Have All the Farmers Gone?

The Census Bureau reports that, for the first time ever, rural counties declined in population from 2010 to 2012,  losing about 40,000 people, or .1 percent. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living today, and roughly 15 percent now live in rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number of legislators who farm for a living has dropped by nearly half—from roughly 734 in 1976 to fewer than 400 in 2007, according to the most recent NCSL statistics. Farmland itself is shrinking, with the loss of 72 million acres since 1982, much of it to development.

From 2000 to 2010, rural and small-town populations declined in six states, five of them in the Great Plains, according to the Housing Assistance Council’s tabulations of U.S. Census data. Iowa, for example, grew 4 percent overall, but lost 2 percent of its rural and small-town population. In Minnesota, the drop has been even more dramatic. From 1980 to 2010, the rural population fell 10 percent while metro areas grew by 42 percent. (The Census Bureau defines rural areas as open country and settlements with fewer than 2,500 residents.)

The change has been felt in legislatures, as long-serving, rural leaders retire, often replaced by freshmen who lack legislative memory or urban lawmakers who lack rural empathy.

In a speech to a farm group in December 2012, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilseck warned that rural America’s political power would continue to shrink unless farmers became more proactive.

In small-town America, where politics have always been more personal, the changes are not well-received. Last November, people in Sonnenberg’s district felt so estranged from government that many voted to take the first steps to secede from Colorado to form a 51st state. The initiative failed, but not by that much—five counties voted in favor and six counties against—attracting significant national attention. Sonnenberg said the vote was what he expected. “A number of people were concerned that this wasn’t the best avenue to spend our money. I think the goal was met—to send a message that rural Colorado should not be ignored, especially since it holds the top two economic drivers in the state in energy and agriculture.”

Secession movements are not new; several Southern states seceded in the 1860s, and, more recently, groups in Arizona, Maryland, Massachusetts and Utah, among others, have tried to break away. Secession is difficult to pull off, as it requires approval from several levels of government, including both houses of Congress.

Food: The Great Equalizer

In many states, rural lawmakers have formed caucuses to leverage their influence. But in Indiana, at least, the group  didn’t organize until 2009 and is still feeling its way, says Young, a founder. “Although we have a lot of rural legislators, we don’t coordinate as well as the urban legislators from Lake County, Indianapolis and Evansville. Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, they come together and form a group.”

The Indiana caucus has focused its efforts on increasing high-speed Internet, maintaining rural roads and attracting more health care providers.

Young is sponsoring a bill that would add Indiana to the roster of states that legalize the production of industrial hemp. His district encompasses all or part of six counties in southern Indiana, the biggest of which has about 20,000 people. Over the past 25 years, his district has gained population but, he says, “it’s way under what it was in 1930. The Depression had a big impact on southern Indiana.”

Sonnenberg and Young point out that rural America produces much of the nation’s oil, gas and coal and provides resources such as timber, minerals and clean water. Farmers feed the nation and help feed the world. Farm products sold in the United States in 2012 totaled $394.6 billion, up 33 percent from 2007, and exports set a record of $140.9 billion in FY 2013. In the past five years, U.S. agricultural exports have been the strongest in history.

Sonnenberg believes these numbers deserve more attention. “Agriculture is the state’s second-largest industry. It makes it hard for me to understand why [urban dwellers] don’t realize the issues that matter to people out here are so important.”

Rural Concerns

Sonnenberg ticks off a litany of issues crucial not just to Colorado farmers, but to many rural regions.

Water: “The No. 1 issue out here in eastern Colorado is always water. As people move to the Front Range and cities need more water, there’s only one place for them to get it and that’s from agriculture. Until we figure out how to store water so both the city and agriculture can have the water they need, we’re headed down a path I think will hurt rural Colorado.”

Transportation: When the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dispensed funds for infrastructure projects, Sonnenberg says his district got money for only 12 miles of road repair. According to NCSL research, rural roads carry less than half of America’s traffic yet they account for more than half of the nation’s vehicular deaths.

Resources: State policies that restrict winter plowing of lesser traveled roads from dusk to dawn “are devastating out here,” Sonnenberg says. “You have kids travelling those roads for after-school activities.”

Health care: Only about 11 percent of the nation’s physicians work in rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and small hospitals struggle to stay open. Many rural areas also have a shortage of lawyers.

Communications: Many, if not most, rural areas have only one cell phone and broadband provider. A report issued in June 2013 by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration showed only 18 percent of residents in the most isolated rural areas had access to broadband service, compared to nearly 38 percent of people in exurbs—areas outside of suburbs.

The Cultural Divide

The partisan divide in the rest of the country isn’t always reflected in rural-urban politics, and Colorado’s Sonnenberg can’t always count on the support of fellow Republicans.

“It’s funny, but sometimes the people in my own party are the ones I have the most trouble with,” says Sonnenberg. “Their perspective is, ‘You choose to live out there so you deal with those issues because that’s your choice. I shouldn’t be subsidizing anything you do out there.’” Much of the cultural divide, he believes, is due to unfamiliarity with the rural lifestyle.

“They’ve never spent a day out here except to shoot their pheasants and go to the local café and have breakfast for $3 and a cup of coffee for 50 cents. It’s a little different from your Starbucks.”

Sonnenberg has proposed legislation that would apportion one House member to each of Colorado’s 64 counties, giving the Eastern Plains as many as 20 or more seats. (The state’s 35 single-member Senate districts would remain the same.) In early April, a House concurrent resolution to put the issue on the November ballot was discussed in  committee, but no vote was taken.

He knows the effort is likely to face both political and constitutional hurdles. “I’m realistic that it is an uphill battle, but the rural counties want to have their day in front of the legislature,” he says.

What Changes Are Needed?

 David Peters, an assistant professor of sociology and extension rural sociologist at Iowa State University, agrees with Sonnenberg that to maintain rural representation, it may be necessary to change the way legislatures are composed. If we stay on the current path, Peters says, “rural areas are going to have increasingly less impact on state legislatures. As redistricting shifts from rural to urban, you’re going to see a turn away from the traditional political establishment to lobby groups: corn, soybean and cattlemen’s associations are going to have much more power, and their focus is going to be toward urban legislators.”

Peters believes Great Plains states “may need to have more of a geographical balance like we have in Congress, with two senators for each state. It mimics the U.S. Constitution, and in some ways you could argue that, if both houses are proportionally represented, there’s not much difference between them. But having a Senate elected by more fixed geographic boundaries would make it a more distinct body,” he says.

State funding allocations also need to be adjusted, Peters adds. “Formulas that may have worked well a long time ago are going to have to be changed.” When state aid to schools is based on enrollment, for example, rural areas often are shortchanged, he says. States need to figure out how to divide funds equitably between cities, where most taxes are generated, and rural areas, which must maintain extensive road networks that serve smaller population bases, Peters says.

Peters’ colleague, Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State political science professor known as Iowa’s “Dr. Politics,” doubts Sonnenberg’s one-representative-per-county bill will fly. “It’s a terrific idea from the point of point of view of low-density counties, but from the point of view of city and suburban areas, they’re going to fight it like crazy,” Schmidt says. He adds that, even though Iowa’s rural population is declining, rural interests in the legislature aren’t.

 An analysis by the Des Moines Register showed that one in five legislators is a farmer or someone whose livelihood is directly tied to agribusiness. “The situation here may be a little different because we all know how important farming and agribusiness is,” Schmidt says. “I think it’s amazing that, even though the rural areas have shrunk, we still have issues like ethanol and the farm bill getting everybody excited and watching them.”

Senator Bill Dix, Iowa Senate Republican leader, spent a recent Saturday shuttling food for a youth basketball tournament in the school gym in Waverly, a town of about 10,000 in northeast Iowa. He farms about 500 acres, with a herd of 65 polled purebred Herefords and crops that include cantaloupe, watermelon, squash and pumpkins.

A Lack of Understanding

“It is necessary to spend time helping urban legislators understand the rural issues,” says Dix. “The number of people who have come from rural backgrounds is fewer and farther between. Without question, how money is spent between rural and urban areas such as the allocation of road use tax money and deployment of broadband is an issue.”

In the end, both Young and Sonnenberg agree there must be a greater understanding and appreciation of the synergy between rural and urban interests. “My sense,” says Young, “is that urban legislators are smart enough to know where their food comes from and that the city can’t exist without the rural countryside.”

Rural America By the Numbers

46.2 million

People living in rural America


Portion of population living in rural areas


Drop in rural population from 2010 to 2012, largely due to baby boomers remaining in cities


Percent of the U.S. land that is rural


Peak year for net migration to rural areas


Portion of rural counties that lost population from 2009 to 2012

Sources: U.S. Deprtment of Agriculture, Economic Research Service,

2013; USA Today

Mark Wolf is an editor at NCSL..


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