WASHINGTON, Dec. 19, 2012 -- Rural Americans need new alliances with urban and suburban interests if they are ever to regain the political clout they enjoyed in the past, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told a U.S. Chamber of Commerce forum in Washington today.

Expanding on his remarks to a Farm Journal forum earlier this month, he said that rural areas today lack the influence that they enjoyed in the 1930s when rural voters “could defeat or elect a president.” Regaining political relevance “must be addressed by rural Americans,” he said. “They need to develop new partnerships” to win adequate public support for rural growth.

“There has to be investment, not just the 20th Century infrastructure, but also the 21st Century infrastructure,” such as broadband communications. USDA has made “extended investment” in some 300 projects benefiting millions of people, he said, in “distance learning, hospitals and telemedicine – but that’s just a fraction of what’s necessary.”

“It is often hard to get attention for agriculture in this town,” he said, echoing the long-standing annoyance felt by many in farm and rural areas who believe that the rest of the country does not appreciate their contributions. In addition, Vilsack’s theme stems partly from his own frustration that USDA’s efforts for the last four years failed to persuade the overwhelming majority of rural people who voted for Republican candidates for president and Congress.

He regretted the “lack of appreciation in this country for what happens in rural America . . . the place where our values are rooted. “Some have created a defensive and reactive response” to the lack of understanding of the importance of agriculture, he said, adopting “a preservation mentality – let’s hang on to what we have. If we have that mentality, how is it that we make the case for young people in rural areas if we are constantly telling them how bad it is.”

Vilsack continued, “We need to have a conversation of urban suburban rural about its [agriculture’s] importance. We at USDA are committed to innovation, to creativity. We want to invest in research and new technologies, adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. We are excited about the opportunity for entrepreneurship in local and regional food systems. We are ready tot tackle the big challenges but we need partners.”

“We want the rest of country to know what we know at USDA about the transformation of the economy, what’s taking place in agriculture,” he said. “We want people to know we are committed to rural America, committed to agriculture.”

“The last 30 years have been nothing short of a miracle” in transformation of agriculture, he insisted, with much of the gains coming from research. “We just suffered the most serious drought since 1930s. Without improved genetics, we would have seen serious crop losses [but instead] we still had a corn crop that ranked in the top 10” years of all time – “the result of seed genetics and farmers adopting new crop technologies” and farm machinery improvement.

USDA’s focus on “the connection between the farmer and consumer is important because far too few of us in this country understand agriculture,” he added. Farmers now make up less than 1 percent of population and most of the food is produced by “less than one-tenth of one percent of the population. It is an extraordinary story that is under-appreciated by people in other parts of the country.”


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