By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 23 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he reminds his urban friends about America's bargain food prices and asks them “What do you do with that extra 15% in your paycheck? Do you buy a nicer car? Do you live in a better home? Do you take a vacation? Do you put money aside for college for your kids? Do you have a retirement nest-egg that's larger than it otherwise would be?”

Speaking at a National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA) meeting Tuesday, Vilsack called on the rural telecom execs to ask the same questions and close the deal by saying “Then you might take the time to thank somebody who's a farmer or rancher in rural America.” NCTA members are in town to push for sensible telecom regulatory reforms. Vilsack called on them to add another message to their meetings here: “We've got to make people stop and think that rural America is not somewhere that has no relevance.”

Voicing his signature “importance of rural America” message, Vilsack said “My life, my family's life depends to a large part on the capacity of rural America to be successful.” He said the country as a whole needs to understand the importance of investing in rural America – as in the case of the $4 billion in new federal funds “to advance telecommunications opportunities in rural America.” He said this $4 billion in stimulus money is “an investment that's important not just for the folks in rural America, but for all of us. If that farmer doesn't know how to get good, timely information, he or she may not succeed, that farm may go under, and that's one more family no longer living in rural America. That creates greater stress on our structures in urban America.”

Hoping to sign up NTCA members to spread the rural message, he told the crowd “any time you have an opportunity to talk to anybody in any position of authority or power, you ought to be talking about the fundamental concept here, which is that rural America matters, it matters, and the rest of the country needs to understand that.”

Vilsack explained “rural America really matters to this country. And I am concerned about the fact that its population is aging and declining, I'm concerned about the fact that per capita income in rural America is about $11,000 less than what folks make in urban and suburban areas, I'm concerned about the fact that 90% of America's persistent poverty counties are located in this very important place that we all rely on for our food and our fiber and our fuel and for our protection and I'm concerned that we have to have a revitalized rural economy so that young people who genuinely want to live and work and raise their families in the same type of communities that they had the privilege of growing up in have the economic opportunity to be able to do that.”

While accepting the need for federal budget cuts, Vilsack said another priority should be “making sure that we continue to provide more capital for investment purposes into rural America.” He said “One strategy is to cut your way out of the deficit, and that's certainly something we should do and we're in the process at USDA of trying to figure out precisely where we can trim our budget . . . But the second strategy for dealing with deficits is that you have to also be able to grow your way out of deficits, you have to get a revitalized economy to get people back to work, allow businesses to prosper and profit.”

Vilsack insisted that budget cutting must be done without “compromising the capacity of our government to help invest in a growing future. There is no more important place for that future to grow than in rural America.” To make sure the cuts are done carefully while at the same time investing in rural America, Vilsack urged NTCA members to talk about rural America because “it's important for the folks in this city whether in Congress or in federal agencies, to understand and appreciate how important rural America is to them . . . that it is important to invest and reinvest in rural areas and here's why, because it is the source of your food, it is the source of your fiber, it's the source of fuel, it the source of jobs.”

Vilsack said it's also important to reach out to the media “because they continually slam ethanol and I can't figure that out. Why would you want to slam the capacity of this country to become more energy secure? Why would you want to prevent the opportunity for there to be a revitalized economy in growing and building an infrastructure that will support a renewable energy source?”

Vilsack concluded that congressional and media complaining about “farm subsidies and ethanol” simply “underscores the fact that I don't think there's an appreciation of what rural America provides to the rest of the country.”

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