2014 was full of big stories impacting rural America. Politics, protests and policymaking played out across the country, including discussions aimed at cutting the amount of ethanol in renewable fuel mandates.

Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann, R-Indiana: “This proposal is back-tracking on the accomplishments made in the past 10 years.”

In what was more of a rally than a hearing, dignitaries representing groups from Washington D.C. to Mainstreet joined Iowa Governor Terry Branstad in January to send a message to the Environmental Protection Agency in what was called the Hearing in the Heartland.

This year progressed with no action on the proposal to reduce the RFS, but the issue will likely play out in 2015.

“The ayes have it 62-38, the conference committee report is adopted.”

Two years after its original deadline, the Farm Bill – a measure authorizing nearly $100 billion in annual federal spending finally emerged from Congress.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, D - Michigan: “This farm bill contains the greatest reform to agriculture in decades.”

2014 included the usual weather calamities ranging from too much rain -- to too little. And nowhere were the arid conditions more devastating than in California, where farmers and ranchers endured their third straight year of drought.

Governor Jerry Brown / (D) California: "Make no mistake, this drought is a big wakeup call and a reminder that we do depend on natural systems. It's not all just going to the store and see what we can buy."

Reservoirs like the Golden State’s Lake McClure spent the year well below normal.

During the traditional rainy season, farmers moved into prevention mode, ripping some trees out, and rationing water for other crops in an effort to survive. And water rights debates between agricultural and urban interests broke out in communities across the West.  

Jeff Marchini/California Producer: “We don’t like pumping out of those aquifers unless we really have to. Why? Because it is a precious resource and there are unknowns on how much exactly is out there.”

In what seemed like the inevitable, the tinder-dry conditions provided extra fuel to massive wildfires across the western United States. Wildfires blackened more than 3 million acres this year but that’s still about half of the 10-year average.

Relief finally arrived in mid-December, when the Pineapple Express dumped several inches of much-needed moisture. Mudslides were a side effect of the downpour AND land damaged by wildfires.   

Midwestern producers also battled Mother Nature.

Shortly after growers put this year’s seeds in the ground, it rained, and rained, and rained… When the fields finally dried, the spigot shut off and it didn’t reopen for weeks. While yields were reduced in key corn-growing states, prospects still are favorable for record corn and soybean production.  

Jane Kleeb, Protest Organizer, BOLD Nebraska: "We are here for one simple reason, and that is to tell President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline in order to protect our land and water."

One thing that escalated in 2014 was criticism of a controversial proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline.  

In April, Demonstrators set-up camp for a six-day protest in Washington, D.C.  As the Obama Administration took more time to review the project, protesters at the National Mall included Native Americans, who began their message on Earth Day. The encampment was organized by the Cowboy and Indian Alliance, a group of ranchers, farmers and indigenous leaders who want President Obama NOT to approve the controversial proposal and they dubbed their protest "Reject and Protect."  

General James Jones, Former National Security Advisor: “I think this is a national security issue of the highest order. I’m trying to lend my voice that we should be paying attention to issues at large.”

The issue picked up steam in the fall, as more than 7,000 concertgoers descended on the small town of Neligh, Nebraska to hear music legends Willie Nelson and Neil Young. The entertainers spoke in support of Bold Nebraska, a patchwork of Cornhusker farmers, urban environmentalists and Native-Americans who circled the wagons to keep the $7 billion dollar pipeline project in legal limbo.

Willie Nelson, founder, Farm Aid: “We have been trying to figure out what to do about the farmers and their situation for 29 years and for 29 years the corporations have continued to take the land away from the small family farmers.”

Senator-Elect Joni Ernst/R – Iowa: “Thanks to all of you we are heading to Washington.  And we are going to make them squeal!”

In November, Americans voted for change in the Midterm elections. Republicans were the beneficiaries as the GOP Republicans took control of the U.S. Senate and increased their majority in the House.

Against that backdrop, the boom in domestic energy production – most of it achieved through a controversial drilling method known as fracking – continued. And as North America moved closer to energy independence, growing global supplies of the world’s most heavily traded commodity took their toll on prices. 

After peaking above $100 per barrel late in June, crude oil began an epic selloff, giving up virtually half of its value by year’s end.  And as Americans topped off their tanks for holiday travel, motorists welcomed the lowest gasoline prices in 5 years. 

While the fall of crude is favorable for the U.S. economy, it’s nothing short of devastating for others -- like Russia, which depends heavily on fossil fuel for revenue. The country’s currency basically collapsed late in the year, as the weight of declining crude prices, western sanctions of over Russian activities in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin’s ban on ALL imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products from the west, turned the ruble to rubble.   

Back on this side of the Arctic, America’s rural economy also slowed in 2014, as commodity prices, land values and net farm income ALL continued to pull back from record prices in previous years. As usual, there were winners and losers…

Grain farmers endured the economic impact of bountiful grain and oilseed production, while livestock producers enjoyed the best of both worlds as cattle, feeders and hogs -- at one time or another -- all soared to all-time highs.  

And as 2014 draws to a close, the rural slowdown is expected to continue, but -- as you might expect – America’s farmers and ranchers are cautiously optimistic for an economic rebound in the New Year.  For Market to Market, I’m Paul Yeager.