Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at Farm Journal Forum 2012
Vilsack outlined his self-described progressive vision for rural America in a Farm Journal Forum 2012 address
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week showed up at Farm Journal Forum 2012 with a new message. Instead of emphasizing the Obama Administration's progress on the farm export front, or talking about drought initiatives, topics that had dominated his recent talks, he called for a new "progressive" attitude in rural America, one that would replace current "reactive thinking."
Joking that his new message would probably get him in trouble, but it was time for an "adult conversation," Vilsack took aim at a rural mindset of trying to "hold on to what we've got," which he said manifests itself in fear of regulation and political rifts. He asked that his rural constituents instead focus on creating new growth opportunities that will keep young people from leaving rural counties, attract new business development and reverse poverty trends.
To do that, the former governor of Iowa and one-time presidential aspirant suggested that agricultural constituencies need to speak as one and build political alliances. "We have to be strategic about the fights that we pick. Because the fights we often pick are misinterpreted in some corners. Sixteen percent of America’s population lives in rural areas. That means in essence that 16% of the representatives represent rural America. Eighty four percent don’t.
"Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?" Vilsack continued, answering his own question. "It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the that fact rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country. We had better recognize that. And we better begin to reverse it."
Debate over food nutrition
Vilsack singled out the debate over SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), better known as food stamps, "as an example of a battle that we’re having that is not strategic in my view." The Secretary said the program's opponents "stigmatize" the recipients of food stamps, many of whom "played by the rules" and still can't make ends meet.
"Here’s the thing. If somehow magically Congress decided to cut SNAP in half, would all that money go into the production agriculture commodity title of the farm bill? Of course it wouldn’t! So, what we do when we pick that fight is all of the people who care about SNAP – senior citizens, people with disabilities, children, and working families – all a sudden go, 'hum, those rural folks are against us.'
"Why should anybody in the city care about the commodity title? They don’t understand that it’s directly related to their food supply and the affordability of their food, because we’re not proactively messaging that. We’re fighting this battle about whether SNAP should be this amount or that amount."
Vilsack urged rural economic interests to speak as one. The Agriculture Secretary recently reiterated the administration's commitment to the federal ethanol standard, after livestock producers, arguing that it inflated feed prices, asked that it be overturned. Corn producers, of course, benefit from the market created by the ethanol program, which has also resulted in rural employment opportunities at ethanol plants.
Here's how Vilsack explained the decision: "We are interested in reducing our reliance on foreign oil. We are interested in creating opportunities in rural communities across the United States. And I think the bio-fuel industry is one industry that’s introducing us into a new economy in the rural areas."
He also took aim at criticism of agricultural groups that seek "proactive" regulatory solutions. "So, for example, and I know I’m going to get heck for this, the egg producers decide they want to sit down and talk to the enemy, the Humane Society. They are tired of having to fight referendum after referendum. They don’t want 50 sets of rules. They want one rule. And they want to make peace.