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Vilsack committed to helping rural America

By Jennifer Carrico

RURAL FORUM—U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke about his commitment to rural America during a rural forum held at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Aug. 19 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Journal photo by Jennifer Carrico.)

"We developed the rural council in February for the rest of the government to understand what is going on with rural issues," said Vilsack.

He outlined four areas the council is working on. The first is the need for greater investment in rural companies and areas through credit.

"Many farmers are getting farm loans, and an estimated 1,000 small businesses in rural areas have received loans for business development," he said.

The second is innovation, as agriculture innovation has grown about 200 percent in the past couple of years.

"We expect a record in ag exports for 2011, with $135 million of exports expected," said Vilsack. "We are also experiencing a trade surplus in ag with about $42 billion more products sold than purchased. The USDA has been focusing on helping to increase ag exports."

He said they continue to build markets in renewable energy with biorefineries and nonfood feedstocks being used for ethanol in order to get away from the food versus fuel debate, which will help the export markets also.

The third is for rural development with nearly 6,000 projects already in place to develop rural communities.

The fourth is to further develop conservation programs.

"We currently have a record number of acres put into conservation programs and toward conserving land," he said.

Funding expansion

With budget cuts all across government programs, Vilsack said the USDA is looking at it as an opportunity to modernize and shape up the department.

"In order to continue to work for rural opportunities, we need to find good partnerships. We have found one with the Council on Foundations," he said.

The Council on Foundations is a national nonprofit association of approximately 2,000 grant-making foundations and corporations.

"As a leader in philanthropy, we strive to increase the effectiveness, stewardship, and accountability of our sector while providing our members with the services and support they need for success," as it reads on their website.

Vilsack hopes to get foundations to invest in rural areas to help rural communities. With the signing of the cooperation with the Council, he wants to see an increase of funds made to foundations and that this significant partnership can make a difference in rural areas.

Program changes

He also said that conservations programs could be changed and consolidated into fewer programs with more flexibility to meet the needs of all different kinds of farmers and ranchers in different topographical areas.

"We need to make USDA more efficient," said Vilsack.

He also stressed the importance of a good infrastructure for the entire country and the need for an investment in this area in order to transport goods where they need to go.

"We need to grow the economy by investing wisely," he said.

Vilsack suggested that farmers take advantage of double cropping their land in order to increase income and efficiency of their land.

He stressed the importance of conservation programs. "With higher commodity prices, there has been a competition for acres when it comes to conservation programs. It needs to continue to be attractive to farmers to put acres in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), which will provide a greater flexibility for biofuels, grazing and haying to help farmers and ranchers when needed," he said.

He also discussed the upcoming farm bill discussions and stressed the need to have a set of principles to follow.

"We need to make sure there is a strong safety net that is understandable and simple for farmers," said Vilsack. "There is a special interest on direct payments with the hope to keep and reconfigure the program.

"The farm bill needs to be responsive to the needs of diverse producers all across the U.S."

Vilsack reassured his continued commitment to rural development to make rural areas an attractive area to live; a commitment to conservation to make rural life more common for rural activities; a commitment to developing more export markets; and a recognition of ag diversity at local and regional food systems and markets.

"In the past policy has been funding driven. This time there will be more decisions on the financial framework and then the policy will follow with what funding is available," he said.

"We need the other 99 percent of the population to understand rural America and agriculture in order to get the government officials and policy to help agriculture also," concluded Vilsack.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by email at jcarrico@hpj.com.

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