USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack headlined the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C.
Secretary Vilsack, lawmakers and experts spark dialogue from all sides of food and farm issues at the Farm Journal Forum
Agriculture has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy during the past four years. Yet poverty in rural communities remains stubbornly high.
"Our poverty rate in rural America is at 17%, significantly higher than it is in metro areas," said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Farm Journal Forum in Washington, D.C., in early December. As a result, he said, rural populations are declining. "More than 50% of counties in non-metro areas have lost population in the past four years."
Vilsack was one of several speakers at the Forum to juxtapose optimism about agricultural growth and productivity with countervailing social forces such as hunger, poverty and malnutrition. A wide range of speakers provided compelling commentary on this year’s theme: navigating the intersection between policy and modern agriculture’s ability to feed the world.
No one made a splash like Vilsack, who presented what he termed a new speech about how rowcrop farmers, livestock producers and their lobbies need to present a more positive, unified view of rural America. Saying it was time for a "grown-up conversation," he took issue with constituents who worry about overregulation, bicker over policy and care more about "protecting what they have" than contributing to a new vision for rural America.
"We need a proactive message, not a reactive message," said the former governor of Iowa, who has been charged by the Obama administration with reaching out to rural constituents, who are overwhelmingly Republican. "How else are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming? Because you are competing against the world now and opportunities are everywhere," he said.
To the Secretary, the future of rural America depends on the development of bio-based businesses. Vilsack outlined the administration’s ongoing efforts to encourage rural development through broadband initiatives and to support producers pounded by the 2012 drought.
Robert Thompson of Johns Hopkins University sounded a similar refrain when he urged farmers to support international ag development, especially in the poorer nations. That might sound counter-intuitive at first blush, he said, but it might be the best market development strategy.
"[Farmers] tend to see that as developing competition," he said. "But most developing countries don’t have anywhere near enough resources to be selfsufficient in food. Particularly in East and South Asia, where there’s no more land to be brought into production and population continues to grow."
International ag development hasn’t received much attention since the mid-1980s, he noted, when foreign aid dried up and the World Bank retrenched on its investments. But interest is growing through the efforts of the Gates Foundation and U.S. companies that view developing local agriculture as the key to alleviating poverty in low-income countries.
The cruel irony is that many of the hungriest people in developing countries are farmers, noted Roger Thurow, senior fellow for global agriculture and food policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of a new book, The Last Hunger Season. Many of these hungry farmers don’t own enough land to make farming profitable or can’t produce enough from their farm to feed their families.
Large, developed farms produce about 75% of the world food supply, noted Kavita Prakash-Mani, who heads the food security agenda for Syngenta International. About 500 million smaller farms with less than 2 hectares of land provide the other 25%. Tragically, these farmers "constitute about half the hungry people in the world," she said.
- January 2013