“If we only focus on what we’ve done before and try to do an even better job of it, it won’t be enough,”
SECRETARY OF AGRICULTURE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION
“Agriculture… is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.” Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States”
Rural America needs attention, not just for rural America’s sake, but for the entire nation’s, according to Tom Vilsack, Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture.
Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists’ annual meeting here April 19 that rural America was important to the nation’s past and it is critical to its future security, not only because it provides healthy food, but increasingly also fuel.
American farmers are the most productive in the world, but their numbers are declining, they’re getting older and on average only nine per cent of their income comes from farming. Moreover, 90 per cent of the persistently poorest counties in the U.S. are rural.
“So despite the fact this is a place where people do something better than anyone else in the world, despite the fact that it is the source of our food, our fibre our feed, an ever increasing amount of our fuel and of our water and the fact this is where our country got started in terms of value systems, there is a silent crisis, a quiet crisis taking place in rural America,” Vilsack said.
Committed to rural
Vilsack, the former governor of farm-state Iowa, and a lawyer who raised his family in a rural town, said he is committed to making sure rural people, no matter their occupation, have an opportunity to “partake in the American dream.”
The Obama administration will continue farm safety nets, although it plans to reduce subsidy payments to the richest farmers. And it has pledged to double farm exports over the next five years.
But exports doubled during the previous 10 years. Farm payments rose too. And still the number of farmers fell, Vilsack said.
“That tells us that the safety net has to be more than direct payments, more than countercyclical payments, more than loan programs,” he said. “It also has to include quality jobs in rural America.”
Policy makers and pundits need to move beyond traditional Farm Bills and the focus on subsidies to diversify the rural economy, Vilsack said.
The U.S. government is committed to rolling out broadband Internet to rural areas, expanding biofuel production, supporting biotechnology, encouraging rural residents to exploit their natural resources for recreation and implement ecosystem programs such as paying farmers to improve drinking water by planting trees in sensitive watersheds.
“If we only focus on what we’ve done before and try to do an even better job of it, it won’t be enough,” Vilsack said. “We’ve got to do something different.”
That includes getting the message to urbanites and their politicians that the fate of rural America is important to them, he said.
One in 12 jobs in the U.S. is created by agriculture. Agriculture is one of the few sectors in the U.S. to enjoy a trade surplus. For every $1 billion in farm exports, 1,000 jobs are created, according to Vilsack.
In 1950, when Vilsack was born, 15 per cent of the U.S. population farmed; now it’s less than one per cent.
“In my lifetime we have lost well over a million farmers, despite the fact they are the best in the business, despite the fact that they’re extraordinarily productive,” he said. “And in fact it’s the reason we’ve lost farmers, because they are extraordinarily productive.”