LIANE HANSEN, host:
Barack Obama's campaign for president first took root in Iowa where he appealed to rural residents and farmers. Candidate Obama won the Iowa Democratic caucus. Now that he's president-elect, rural and farm interests are responding to the campaign promises. Some spoke with NPR's Howard Berkes for our series "Memo to the President."
HOWARD BERKES: Barack Obama's farm policy pronouncements in Iowa raised expectations. Chuck Hassebrook directs the Center for Rural Affairs, a Nebraska-based advocate for small and family farms.
Mr. CHUCK HASSEBROOK (Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs): That's how he really propelled himself onto the national stage, in part by campaigning for fundamental change in farm and rural policy in the state of Iowa. And I think it's absolutely essential that he follow through with that as president.
BERKES: Hassebrook wants to shift the focus of foreign policy away from big and corporate farms.
Mr. HASSEBROOK: The most important thing the president could do is simply to stop subsidizing megafarms that drive smaller operations out of business by putting a cap on the payments that go to the big farms.
BERKES: The notion of big and small farms, family and corporate, isn't as simple as it seems, says Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau, which represents farm interests big and small.
Mr. BOB STALLMAN (President, American Farm Bureau): The larger farmers in this country produce 80 to 85 percent of all the food, fiber, and fuel. If you target policies only to small farmers, then you're excluding the vast majority of agricultural production in this country, and we don't think that's a good idea. You have to achieve that balance. By the way, less than two percent of America's farms are corporate, and many of those are family corporations.
BERKES: Farm subsidies are supposed to keep food prices down and farmers and farm towns thriving. As costs have risen, farming has consolidated. Fewer farmers are working bigger farms. So subsidies are not achieving one goal, says Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies, a group that seeks attention to rural issues.
Mr. DEE DAVIS (President, Center for Rural Strategies): We're seeing that the greatest outmigration in rural areas is the places where they get the highest agricultural subsidies. The system is not working.
BERKES: Davis and other rural advocates want to trim subsidies for the biggest farmers and direct the money saved to rural economic development. That's because agriculture is a relatively small part of the rural economy, says James Gimple, a professor of government at the University of Maryland.
Dr. JAMES GIMPEL (Professor of Government, University of Maryland): There has been a lot of attention paid to agriculture because they have pretty well-organized interest groups defending their interests. But agriculture is a minority percentage of the employment in rural America, and it has been a minority percentage quite a long time.
BERKES: At the American Farm Bureau, Bob Stallman acknowledges a diminished role for agriculture in rural life. But he wants to make sure President-elect Obama isn't led astray.
Mr. STALLMAN: Some of those other groups are not taking into account production of food, fiber, and fuel, and what that means for not only this country, but frankly a lot of other countries in the world. And that's where agricultural policy becomes really important. So while you can have a focus on rural development, you can't just exclude agriculture out of that discussion.
BERKES: Stallman wants President Obama to focus on keeping agricultural trade free of international barriers, like tariffs. He wants a guest worker program so that agribusiness can continue to employ migrant labor. And he wants a secretary of agriculture skilled in balancing competing interests. Rural activists want an agriculture secretary willing to look beyond agribusiness. Debbie Kozakowski and her group, RuralVotes, campaigned for Obama, and she hopes...
Ms. DEBRA KOZIKOWSKI (Proprietor, RuralVotes): He remembers that he said we need to have a Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Agribusiness. I'd like to see somebody who's not married to one facet of rural life, but understands the full complement that we find in rural America today.
BERKES: Senator Obama supported both farm and rural initiatives. Candidate Obama seemed to pay equal attention to farm and rural issues. Now the question is how will President Obama strike a balance? Howard Berkes, NPR News.
HANSEN: You can read up on more issues and challenges facing the new occupant of the White House at npr.org.