Capitol Ideas May/June 2015

Delores McQuinn knew her city of Richmond, Va., had challenges with access to healthy foods well before she was elected to Virginia’s House of Delegates in 2008. “This little kid … would come to my house almost every other day to see if we had food for (him) and his siblings," she said. I realized … that there were some serious issues of people having access to food.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have few grocery stores or healthy, affordable food retail outlets.

Forty-eight rural hospitals have closed their doors since 2010, according to data recorded by the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The typical rural hospital has 25 to 50 beds. It is more dependent on Medicare and Medicaid, which generally pay less than other insurers, and it has lower patient volume than urban hospitals. “The implication of lower volume is that the hospital is spreading fixed costs over less people and there is less certainty about the numbers of services that will be provided on any given day,” said Mark Holmes, director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program. “This uncertainty makes it hard to staff the hospital and hard to plan.”

To paraphrase Mark Twain, “the reports of Rural America’s death are greatly exaggerated.” In fact, at least four major trends are helping improve the future of rural America: broadband, telemedicine, job training and new methods to attract young people to farming all offer hope.

The story behind emerging technologies in agriculture begins with a simple truth. Everybody needs to eat. With an estimated global population of more than 9 billion by 2050 and with no commensurate growth in arable land, that means farmers and ranchers will need to find new ways to produce more food on the same amount of land. New advances in agricultural technology may help the producers, but the ag tech startups that create those advances haven’t been getting a lot of support themselves.