Vilsack: America Faces Rural Crisis
Secretary Says Changing Farm Bill Isn't About Bedroom Communities
Tuesday, April 27
BY: Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hit on several changes he would like to see to support the rural community of the U.S. in a talk before members of the North American Agricultural Journalists. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton) WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The country needs to have a debate about how to invest in rural America, which means reshaping the farm bill and how we classify the safety net, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Monday.
Speaking to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists, the secretary described rural America as in a "silent crisis," noting that 90 percent of the nation's persistently poor counties are rural. "This isn't just about subsidies, it's about the survival of rural America," Vilsack said.
Vilsack reiterated statements he made in testimony last week on the farm bill before the House Agriculture Committee, saying the nation needs a broad discussion about the fate of rural America but farm groups and agriculture reporters also have to get beyond the usual focus on farm programs.
"If we really want to keep farmers on the land, if we want to keep small communities vibrant, we've got to diversify economic opportunities and we've got to focus the country's attention on the needs and pay attention to rural America," Vilsack said. "And we've got to elevate the conversation beyond the typical conversation about the farm bill, which is almost always focused on subsidies. It's important for people to understand this isn't just about subsidies."
Part of the problem in pointing out the challenges of rural America is that "we are talking to ourselves," Vilsack said. The secretary became more animated in his talk as the questions from reporters centered around direct payments, trade and the idea that the administration's vision would create "bedroom communities" as suggested last week by House Ag Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas, R-Okla. Vilsack said lawmakers need to look at the lack of economic development in their districts.
"It's about the renaissance of the rural economy," Vilsack said. "It's not about bedroom communities. You know, it's interesting that the guy who asked me that question, the No. 2 county in the country for increased poverty and unemployment, it's in his district. We have got to start paying attention to this stuff, OK? This is not about Republican or Democrat. This is about the country not paying attention to a very important part of its core."
The increased productivity of America's farmers has led to an overall loss of farms. Along with that, roughly 900,000 farmers get substantially more income working off the farm than they do from their farm operations."That tells us that the safety net has to be more than direct payments, more than counter-cyclical payments, more than loan programs, it also has to include quality jobs in rural America," Vilsack said.
When applying that to the farm bill, Vilsack said changes are needed because "If that's all we do, if all we do is focus on what we've done before and try to do a better job of it, it won't be enough and we will continue to see these trends, and rural America will continue to compromise as a result. We have got to do something different."
American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman listened to Vilsack's speech, and he agreed that more economic development is needed in rural America, but questioned why it has to be an "either or" proposition.
"Is the farm-program safety net the only conversation we have to have about rural America and the importance and things we need to do to provide an economy, as the secretary said, that's conducive to provide opportunity for our sons and daughters and people to live in rural communities?" Stallman said. "We have to have the whole conversation."
Vilsack highlighted broadband internet, biotechnology and biofuels as ways to jumpstart the rural economy. One major stimulus in rural America in recent years has been the development of renewable energy, which Vilsack said will translate into $95 billion in investment and 800,000 jobs by 2022 if the nation hits the goal of a 36-billion-gallon Renewable Fuels Standard.
The secretary also pointed to the administration's proposal to cut direct payments for the top 30,000 recipients by lowering the adjusted gross income eligibility caps from $750,000 in farm income to $500,000, as well as lowering the non-farm income levels from $500,000 to $250,000.
"If we don't control the deficit, we don't begin to address that, it's higher interest rates and likely inflation," he said. "Who suffers under that scenario? The very farmers you are talking about. And they will suffer a far worse fate than having the top 30,000 farmers receive a little bit less."