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Vilsack asks help of rural youth to fight educational cuts

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today appealed to 4-H and FFA students to join the administration in opposing Republican plans to cut Pell grants and health care to avoid an increase in interest rates on student loans.

In a call to student leaders, Vilsack said that President Barack Obama believes strongly that the country needs to maintain its commitments to higher education and more support for community colleges, but that the House vote on the budget and the House view on the interest rate on student loans put these programs “at risk.”

Vilsack noted that if Congress does not act by July 1, interest rates on student loans will double. He said that the Senate wants to eliminate tax loopholes to avoid the increases, but that the House wants to cut preventive health care programs, which he said would be bad for women in rural areas.

It is important for people to "weigh in" on these issues, Vilsack said.

Vilsack said he believes young people need the education in order to participate in the future of agriculture, whether it is for the production of commodities, participation in local and regional food production, improving the environment, or becoming entrepreneurs in businesses that provide recreation opportunities.

Vilsack said he “can’t emphasize enough” the opportunities there are in agriculture, from feeding people to going into the biofuels industry to help wean the United States from dependence on foreign oil, but that all of these fields require education, which would be endangered by cuts to the student programs.

The student leaders did not respond directly to Vilsack’s appeal, but instead asked questions about their high school educations.

One student said that as schools face budget pressures they tend to cut out vocational educational program, which Vilsack described as vital, particularly for children who are interested in agriculture.

Asked by one of the students whether it is important for youth to get “hands-on experience,” Vilsack also described that as vital, and said it was one of the reasons that he had worked to convince Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to pull back the rule that would have restricted the work activities of both the children of farmers and off-farm youth on farms.

Vilsack said agriculture is “one of the most difficult callings in the country,” one that requires knowing how to plant and harvest, repair equipment and manage risk.

On the dangers for youth in farm work, Vilsack said that he would work with farm groups and with FFA and 4-H to help them “do a better job of managing that experience.”