The Agriculture Department aims to implement the new farm bill in ways that boost rural economies, while complementing production agriculture, U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
Speaking to about 470 people attending the National Farmers Union convention in Wichita, Vilsack outlined strategies his department is undertaking to encourage economic opportunities in rural areas that will stench the population drain brought on by the mechanization and other technology advancements in U.S. farming.
Some rural areas have been losing population for decades, but the department's Economic Research Service data shows that 2010 to 2013 marks the first period with an estimated population loss for rural America as a whole. The number of people living in non-metropolitan areas was 46.2 million in 2013 — meaning that nearly 15 percent of U.S. residents are spread across 72 percent of the nation's land area.
Vilsack told the group that agriculture is 12 times more productive today than in 1950, when he was born; and that means fewer people now on the farm.
"What do you do with all those folks that used to be on the farm? Is there a way we can keep them in our rural communities," he said. "This is not just about a farm bill, this is not just about agriculture. This is about rural life."
Part of his department's rural strategy is using conservation efforts that create markets and support industries such as outdoor recreation. One is developing local and regional food systems where smaller-sized operators can be profitable by selling in farmers markets, to schools and other local markets. Another piece is developing rural manufacturing facilities such as bioprocessing plants that create good paying jobs.
Farmers markets are among the fastest growing aspect of farming today, with 200,000 producers involved in the multi-billion-dollar industry, he said. There are more than 82,000 farmers markets operating around the United States, and USDA has made it easier for people to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps, to buy fresh, locally grown produce at them.
"People like to know where their food comes from. It is an opportunity for smaller-sized operators to be profitable because they are not necessarily competing in a commodity market that essentially rewards efficiency and technology and quantity," he said.
The department is also awarding grants in its farm-to-school program to help local producers market their products to schools, a $3 billion market opportunity, he said.
Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who spoke later to the group, also touted biofuels as a major economic engine for rural economies.
During her address, McCarthy focused primarily on the EPA's proposed changes to clean water rules that would expand the agency's regulatory authority on streams that feed into major rivers and lakes.
McCarthy told the farmers that she regrets naming that proposal the Waters of the United States, and wished her agency had done a better job rolling it out. Critics fear the rule will regulate their farm ponds and irrigation ditches, something she said the agency never intended to do.
"Language matters, particularly when we are dealing with agriculture because I know EPA does not have a history of trust," she said.
Their initial proposal was too broad and ill-defined, she said, and the EPA was never interested in claiming ditches or protecting other waters that are of no concern to downstream waterways.
She also noted that the new rule does nothing to change the exclusions and exemptions in the Clean Water Act that already allow agricultural activities to continue as normal.