Jul 13, 2014
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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.

"They get castigated by folks in agriculture. You are going to destroy the system. Actually not. We’re going to grow it. Because we’re not going to be fighting 50 different battles every two years. We’re going to be proactive. We’re going to fight a good fight, a strategic fight, one that’s worth fighting."

Vilsack recently returned from a series of USDA hearings across the Midwest to gage the impact of the drought. He was given many concrete suggestions for helping farmers and livestock producers survive its economic consequences, including doing a better of job of forecasting the weather and making low-interest loans, actions he plans to take. But he also encountered fear of regulatory activity.

"I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been to hear the conversation that we’ve had for the last couple years about regulations, regulations that either didn’t exist, weren’t going to exist, or that were taken care of. I read a survey recently where people are still talking about the dust rule. It’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. People are still concerned about the child labor issue. It’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. We dealt with this. Yet we continue to talk about it. Why? Because...we are fearful. We’re not looking at this extraordinary future ahead of us. We’re trying to hang on to what we got."

A progressive vision for a new rural economy

Vilsack devoted a major portion of his speech to outlining that vision for a new rural economy, one based on "an increase in innovative ways to use plant material and crop residue and livestock waste to produce a whole range of products in the economy. It holds the promise of a brand new rural economy, creating new opportunities for farmers as well as job opportunities in small towns.

"I’ve seen in the last couple years some phenomenal opportunities being created. The Ford Motor Company Innovation Center basically [takes] plant materials to produce the bodies of cars that will be lighter and stronger than fiberglass to allow us to meet these new fuel efficiency standards."

"I’ve seen folks take hog waste and turn it into asphalt and use it in roads in Ohio. I’ve seen the molecules from a corn cob be reformulated into a plastic bottle that Coca-Cola will need 10 billion of annually…This is an amazing new future, where virtually everything we need in the economy can be biology based, crop-based, plant-based, and livestock-based."

"We need to cement that new economy in rural America. And we need to sell it to our young people, if we are going to reverse the population and poverty challenges that rural America faces. And frankly we need to recognize that unless we respond and react the capacity rural America and its power and reach will continue to decline."


 

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