The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens


Vilsack calls for new ‘attitude’ in rural America


In his first major speech since the election, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Thursday directly addressed Republican criticism of the Obama administration during the election campaign, and said that leaders in rural America need to take on a “new attitude” that replaces “trying to preserve what we’ve got” with “a growth mindset.”

Exit polls showed that 59 percent of rural Americans voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and a pre-election poll taken for AgriPulse showed that about 75 percent of farmers with more than 500 acres intended to vote for Romney.

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
Vilsack told a Farm Journal Forum audience of big farmers and agribusiness executives who were most likely Republicans that he has found it “frustrating to hear conversation about regulations that didn’t exist or were taken care of,” such as the proposals to regulate dust on farm roads or change child farm labor rules that the administration had already rejected.

People talked about “just trying to preserve what we’ve got,” he said, because “they are fearful” rather than “looking at this extraordinary future that is ahead of us.”

Noting that rural youth today have the opportunity to live and work anywhere, Vilsack asked, “How are you going to encourage young people today who have all these opportunities and we want them to keep the farm if we have a reactive message, not a proactive message?”

Only 16 percent of Americans now live in rural areas, and that percentage could continue to drop if young rural Americans do not see a reason to stay there, Vilsack said. He noted that rural America has already lost political power due to the population loss, and said that is a major reason the House of Representatives has not felt compelled to take up the farm bill.

“Why is it we don’t have a farm bill?,” Vilsack asked. “It isn’t just differences of policy, it is because rural America with its shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of the country.”

The fact that “we can’t get a farm bill done,” Vilsack said, shows “it is time for a different thought process. It is time for us to have an adult conversation in rural America.”

“The fights we often pick are misinterpreted in some quarters,” Vilsack said. He cited the reaction to the decision of the United Egg Producers to try to forge an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to encourage Congress to pass a law setting national standards for cage sizes.

“The egg producers decide they want to sit down and talk to the enemy. They want one rule. They get castigated by [other] folks in agriculture.” He said that while other agriculture groups said the egg producers were going to destroy the system, “actually not, you are going to grow the industry.”

“We have to have a truthful conversation, one in which we don’t get criticized for saying something a little bit controversial,” Vilsack said.

Asked during a question-and-answer period what action should be taken in the farm bill on cutting food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, Vilsack said the debate is another one in which rural Americans have taken a questionable position.

Vilsack said he wants to continue to increase efficiency and reduce fraud and abuse but that SNAP is “a good example of a battle that we are having that is not strategic.” He noted that 90 percent of the people who get food stamps are senior citizens, persons with disability, children or working people who can’t make ends meet.

Rural Americans, he said, “stigmatize those people” and view the program as a competitor to farm subsidies without realizing that the money food stamp beneficiaries spend goes to grocers and ultimately to farmers.

When farmers criticize food stamps, Vilsack said, food stamp beneficiaries think “those rural folks are against us.” People in the cities don’t understand that the commodity title in the farm bill is connected to the food supply, he said, but when farmers criticize SNAP, the situation becomes a fight.

Turning to Tom Dorr, an undersecretary of agriculture for rural development in the George W. Bush administration who was in the audience, Vilsack asked whether he believes that if the SNAP budget were cut in half the money would go to farm programs. Dorr did not answer directly, but later praised Vilsack for his consistent approach to agriculture and rural America.

In an apparent reference to the fact that the minority population is growing in the United States and the pending issue of immigration reform, Vilsack also said, “Rural America is going to have to embrace diversity.”

Calling it “a great place,” Vilsack said rural America should “fight a good fight, a strategic fight, one that is worth fighting” to improve itself.

He noted that agriculture is doing well, although he said the drought is creating new challenges and that prosperity in agriculture is not necessarily translating into good times in the rest of the rural economy.

President Barack Obama brought up the drought and the issue of navigation on the Mississippi River at the most recent Cabinet meeting, Vilsack said, adding that the administration is doing all it can to make sure that navigation continues.

But the secretary said the drought situation has raised the larger issue of the future of infrastructure in rural America.

“We have an infrastructure deficit that needs to be addressed including locks and dams and railroads,” Vilsack said, adding that the issue of “water infrastructure has been raised — water storage, irrigation.”

Credit issues are a concern in rural America, he said, noting that the Agriculture Department, which provides loans to farmers who have the hardest time getting credit, has a record level of farm lending.

More resources need to be put into agricultural research, he said, to keep up production and exports through measures such as double cropping. There also need to be research to address climate change, he said, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs to do a better job of forecasting weather patterns.

Vilsack said he is worried about declining opportunity in the non-agricultural economy and that poverty is higher in rural America than in the rest of the country. The Obama administration, he noted, has expanded broadband internet service in rural America but said it needs to be expanded even more.

The “cornerstones” for the future of rural America, Vilsack said, are agriculture and exports, biofuels, and local and regional food systems, which will provide an opportunity for population growth and recreation.

The goal, he said, should be “to take everything we grow and turn it into an opportunity. Virtually everything we need in an economy can be plant based and bio based.”