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Vilsack: Farm and rural groups need to express outrage, forge political alliances

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addresses the National Rural Assembly this morning in Bethesda, Md. (Jerry Hagstrom/The Hagstrom Report)


BETHESDA, Md. — Farm and rural groups need to move from disappointment to outrage about the House’s failure to pass a farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said here today in a speech to the National Rural Assembly, a gathering of diverse rural community activists from around the country.

In reaction to the House failure to pass the farm bill last week, Vilsack said, “What do we see from rural advocates? Utter disappointment. Are you kidding me? There ought to be outrage.”

“I really love the theme” of the conference, which is “Building an Inclusive Nation,” Vilsack said. But he added, “Folks, we are not going to have that inclusive nation if [Congress doesn’t] understand there are going to be consequences, have to be consequences for turning their backs on rural America.”

“In small town if there is a dispute folks don’t go to their corners, they go to the coffee shop or church basement to figure it out,” Vilsack said. “They can’t afford the luxury of division.”

The farm bill, Vilsack said, is “the blueprint, the engineering decision to this revitalized economy.” Last year the House experienced no negative consequences for failing to pass the farm bill, but it shouldn’t be that way he said.

The House, Vilsack added, needs to understand that “consequences are severe if the House doesn’t reverse its actions” and send a bill to the president.

“It is going to be important for groups like this to express more than extreme disappointment,” he continued. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with ‘we just couldn’t get it done.’ It is an opportunity to address friends and neighbors with a message of what rural America does,” Vilsack said, including providing food at affordable costs, water supplies through conservation measures, landscapes that people enjoy and a disproportionate percentage of members of the military.

“You have got to be the messengers of that proactive message,” Vilsack said. The immigration debate, he added, “is about replaying the immigration story of the country.” It is an opportunity, he noted, to say “we are going to rebuild the economy by embracing these people. Agriculture needs a work force.”

But he added that working for the farm bill can’t be just about rural activism, but also about telling the rest of the country about what rural America does for them.

About 85 percent of the nation’s food supply is grown in rural America, Vilsack noted. There may be disputes about the methods used to grow it, he said, “but we are a food-secure country.”

“We only import because we like access to food year-round,” he said. “Urban Americans need to be reminded that much of the water they consume comes from rural America, particularly in the West, also that the feed stocks for renewable fuels come to rural America.”

“Despite these contributions, rural America is faced with some very serious challenges, starting with people, Vilsack said, adding that rural America lost 40,000 people last year.

“We don’t market the extraordinary opportunities that exist in rural America,” he said. “Many who are raised there leave and do not come back, and few raised in urban or suburban areas are attracted.”

Vilsack said that he personally was lucky because he met his wife in college and fell in love with her and her home town of Mount Pleasant, Iowa.

Vilsack acknowledged that part of the population loss is due to the mechanization of commercial agriculture, but noted that the Obama administration is doing all it can to promote local and organic production as “alternative food systems.”

“We have fewer folks, [more] older folks, poorer folks and we’ve got to change that,” Vilsack said. “We have to create markets where they are not competing against commodity market [dominated by] larger producers. So we focused on local production. We have seen a dramatic increase in a number of these markets, farmers markets, food hubs. We are focusing on encouraging schools in rural areas to focus on where their food comes from.”

But he also said that rural officials focus too much on taxpayer-funded institutions such as schools and hospitals, and need to focus on creating businesses that will pay taxes.

Rural advocates, he said, need to figure out what is in the farm bill that will appeal to environmentalists, conservationists, nutrition advocates and labor unions and get them on board.

“Those are all allies,” Vilsack said. “They have not been embraced. They have not been encouraged to speak about these issues.”

If rural advocates fail to make that connection, he said, the population will continue to fall and with “the way we draw legislative districts,” rural America will have less and less representation in the House.

“You have, I have, we have a very important mission,” Vilsack said. “Understand the role you can play. Express more than extreme disappointment. Demand that they pass legislation that is supportive and not destructive. Demand appreciation for those in rural America.”