Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday addressed a meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with a positive outlook on USDA programs and offerings for rural America, but shunned the mainstream treatment of the sector, noting that many forget its value.
"[Rural America] is the source of our food – accessible, affordable food that gives us a more secure nation. It is the source of our water. It is the source of an ever-increasing amount of our fuel and energy. It is a job creator and it is a place where our values are rooted," Vilsack said. "The future of this country is linked to its past and the values that were created when this country was founded. And they are rural values."
USDA programs provide support in rural areas
Vilsack's speech touched on the many programs that USDA provides to spur job creation, enhance trade opportunities, ensure conservation and improve farmer to consumer relations.
He noted that exports have hit record highs this year through improved trade opportunities and agreements with Russia and South Korea. In addition, sanitary and phyto-sanitary trade barriers continue to fall, Vilsack said, moving trade discussions forward.
Additional highlights from rural America, Vilsack noted, are commitments to research.
"There is a direct correlation between the capacity of this country to produce more," Vilsack said. He highlighted the proposed funding to improve agricultural research in the 2012 Farm Bill.
Small-scale agriculture, another focus area for Vilsack's USDA, is showcased through the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food effort.
"There has been a 67% increase in farmers markets since 2008," Vilsack said. "We now have over 200 food hubs that are supported across the country that allow an aggregation of these locally produced items, making it easier for an institutional purchaser to purchase locally."
Farm Bill needs to be a priority
Vilsack said that though farmers markets and other efforts have improved agricultural outreach, it's not enough.
"Far too few of us in this country fully understand agriculture," Vilsack noted. "When our department was founded 150 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, 90% of our population was rural-based, and most folks understood what agriculture was about."
Vilsack said that even with a liberal definition of "farmer," only 1% of Americans fall into that category. He noted that agriculture is often under-appreciated because America is largely food-secure.
"If you want to talk about agriculture's economic security, clearly you can make that case. But a case that's not often made is that it's also a part of our national security. A country that can feed itself is a stronger country," Vilsack said.
He went on to make the case for a full five-year farm bill, noting that it was his belief that a lack of understanding is holding the farm bill back.
"There is a very serious risk that we might not get a farm bill done this year," Vilsack said, "which suggests to me that we need to do an even better job of explaining to folks in Congress the relevance and importance of rural America."
Vilsack stressed that the bill is a key driver behind the momentum that has been created through USDA programs, and said challenges will come without a farm bill.
"The uncertainty of not knowing what the policy is going to be will create difficulties. The uncertainty of not knowing if there's going to be additional research opportunities will create difficulty. We need a farm bill and we need it now."