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As US becomes more urban and suburban, rural lawmakers struggle to make their voices heard

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MINNEAPOLIS - They're an endangered species in many state legislatures as more Americans move to urban centres or suburban cities: the rural lawmaker who knows what it's like to care for a herd, plant a crop or drive on gravel roads.

Indiana Rep. Bill Friend, a pork producer, said it's challenging to explain modern farming to colleagues who no longer have personal connections with agriculture. He calls it an annual educational project, as he knows of only one other state legislator who makes his living primarily from farming.

"They're one, two, three generations removed from food production and agriculture. It's kind of a foreign topic to them," said Friend, the Republican majority floor leader in the Indiana House.

Lawmakers and political experts say the dwindling numbers of farmers, ranchers and others who make their living off the land affects not just agricultural policy but other rural concerns — highways, health care, schools and high-speed Internet access. Urban and suburban lawmakers might be sympathetic, but they're often unfamiliar with particular concerns.

One Colorado legislator, a rancher, has even gone so far as to suggest each of his state's 64 counties have a single House seat instead of awarding representation according to population.

In ag-centric Nebraska, more than half of the legislators now come from the Omaha and Lincoln areas. Similarly, South Dakota's legislators are bunched near Sioux Falls or Rapid City — only 11 of South Dakota's 105 legislators as of last year were involved in agribusiness; in 1987, the figure was nearly three times higher.

It was once the opposite.

Rural interests had outsized influence in state capitols back when districts were often based on geography rather than population, said Tim Storey, a senior fellow with the National Conference of State Legislatures. That changed when a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s said legislative districts must have roughly equal populations to ensure the principle of one person, one vote.

"That just makes it more difficult for the rural voice to be heard. It doesn't mean it can't be heard. It's just more challenging," according to Doug Farquhar, the conference's program director for agriculture and rural development.

Colorado state Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg's radical idea of one representative per county comes out of his frustrations over not being heard — he is the only rural voice in the House. Currently, the state legislature's votes are heavily concentrated in the greater Denver and Colorado Springs areas.

He concedes the idea is constitutionally dubious, and follows a mostly symbolic ballot initiative in 11 rural Colorado counties last year to secede and form a 51st state amid disagreements over gun control, renewable energy mandates and other issues.

"I think it is an argument worth having," said Sonnenberg, who represents a sprawling district in the northeastern plains. "But I have no illusions this would ever go into effect."

Illinois was the nation's top soybean producer in 2013, and ranks No. 8 in the U.S. for number of farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Census of Agriculture report release this week. But Democrat John Sullivan is the only active farmer in the Illinois Senate, with 200 acres of grain and a few cows.

Sullivan, an assistant majority leader, lamented that the Senate agriculture committee's chairman and other members don't have agricultural backgrounds. He expects a struggle to make the farming opinion heard as the chairman pushes legislation to require labeling of foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.

"It just makes it more difficult to explain and talk to my colleagues when they're only hearing one side of it from opponents of GMO crops," Sullivan said.

In Minnesota, Rep. Rod Hamilton has long argued that rural concerns get neglected in St. Paul, where the number of farmers in the House stands at six — down from 14 as recently as 1995.

Hamilton, a Republican and pork producer, said he plans to work with other rural lawmakers from both parties in both chambers this session to protect shared interests against a leadership that's mostly from the Twin Cities area.

"You don't need that many votes to make an impact," he said.

Forming partnerships has been key for the only full-time farmer in the Maryland Senate, Thomas McLain "Mac" Middleton.

Maryland has some of the country's richest counties, but its poor, rural areas share many of the same problems as urban areas such as Baltimore — poverty, unemployment, teen pregnancies and lack of opportunities, Middleton said.

So he's made common cause with his urban counterparts to ensure that rural communities have access to education funding as well as high-speed Internet service.

Though his 250-acre farm has been in his family since the 1600s and his ancestors grew tobacco, Middleton converted the property mostly to agritourism. He hosts school groups and families to visit barnyard animals, take hay rides, navigate a corn maze or pick strawberries and pumpkins.

Broadband has been important to the growth of his and many other businesses in rural Maryland.

He said: "I fight real hard to make sure that rural communities don't get left behind."

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