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Economy & Business

U.S. agriculture chief come to Hillsboro for National Summit of Rural America

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 03, 2010 - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack came to Jefferson College in Hillsboro Thursday for the National Summit of Rural America. The event was the culmination of the Obama administration's Rural Tour, launched in 2009. Since then Vilsack has covered more than 45,000 miles, listening to the concerns of rural Americans. Those concerns centered on saving a threatened way of life -- through biofuels, creating more opportunities in rural communities and opening up more foreign markets to U.S. agricultural produce. 

The morning's plenary session was emceed by agriculture reporter Max Armstrong of WGN Radio, who recalled the heyday of the American Main Street, many examples of which are today defined by vacant storefronts.

The president of Jefferson College, Raymond V. Cummiskey, welcomed the capacity crowd of 400, which included farmers, ranchers and people from a wide variety of organizations.

Joan Strong, a cattle rancher from Osage County, had come to express her concerns about streamlining the channel from agricultural producer to grocery store. "I'd like to jump some of the middle men," she said, explaining that providing grass-fed beef is difficult due to a lack of inspection facilities.

Kit Brewer of the Southeast Missouri Food Bank came to discuss improving access to fresh produce. Not all soup kitchens and food pantries are certified to receive donations of fresh produce from farmers, and Brewer would like the USDA to remove barriers so farmers can donate with fewer restrictions.

After a video recapping the Rural Tour, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, who was raised in Rolla, took the podium. "The world of agriculture is evolving," he said, "and we must evolve with it if we want our rural communities to thrive." One of many during the program to highlight the importance of the next generation of farmers, Carnahan asked any student members of the National FFA Organization, formerly the Future Farmers of America, to stand.

Carnahan briefly commented on issues affecting the nation's 75 million rural residents, including fair trade and open access to global markets, investment in biofuel research and development, support for local agricultural markets and specialty crop producers, and the expansion of broadband access, which he likened to FDR's rural electrification program.

Vilsack was greeted with a standing ovation and opened his keynote address with recollections of Carnahan's father, the late Gov. Mel Carnahan.

Next, he laid out the reasons for holding the summit -- first and foremost, to educate the rest of America about the roles of farmers and ranchers and the significance of rural communities to the country as a whole.

In 1940, the average farmer fed 19 people. Today, each farmer feeds 155, meaning that our country's 2 million to 2.1 million farming households have the capacity to feed the entire nation. This economic advantage contributes to the fact that Americans spend less of their income on food than any other population.

Agriculture also represents an economic sector with a trade surplus -- a record surplus in the first six months of this year --- with $108 billion in exports expected in 2010. For every billion dollars of trade, Vilsack said, 8,000 to 9,000 jobs are created in this country. On the whole, one in 12 jobs in America is linked to agricultural production.

Agriculture also figures prominently in the nation's plans to cut its dependence on foreign and fossil fuels, the urgency of which has been emphasized by the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finally, the secretary discussed the nation's value system, pointing out that most of the people who founded the United States had rural backgrounds; they came from a tradition of sacrifice and giving back to the land.

Though rural America accounts for just 16-17 percent of the country's population, 45 percent of those who serve in uniform come from rural communities. While some might attribute this to a lack of opportunity in their hometowns, Vilsack believes their service stems from their understanding "that it isn't just about taking, it's about giving."

"The rest of the country needs to know about this," he said, full of conviction.

Next, Vilsack turned to the "extraordinary challenges rural Americans face." In the last five years, 80,000 mid-size farming and ranching operations have folded. The nation has lost a million farmers in the past 40 years. While this is partly due to new technologies and efficiencies, the state of affairs for the farms that remain is dire.

In 2009, the average farm household derived only 9 percent of its income from the farm -- as opposed to 47 percent in 1960 -- with the majority of the rest coming from wages and salaries from off-farm work.

According to Edward Hamill, executive director of the Missouri USDA Farm Service Agency, "The huge drive in farming since I was a small boy is what it costs to raise a family on a small farm. My father never had health insurance, had one new vehicle in his life, a small house, and I grew up without running water."

The biggest difference today, added Hamill, is that "all folks, urban or rural, are living a much better quality of life. And that means farm families, like their urban and suburban counterparts, need more money to afford what have come to be seen as the basic necessities of contemporary life. [For example,] a tremendous amount of farmers or their spouses work a different job so that they can have health insurance."

Vilsack's response was twofold. He called for improving the profitability of small farms and of companion economies in rural communities. At present, rural incomes lag behind the metro areas by about $11,000 per capita.

Vilsack asked the crowd to consider whether we want farmers to be working 200 days off of the farm. He said that a farm or ranch needs at least $250,000 in annual sales before it can turn a profit. "Is that really how we want to be supportive of agriculture in this country?" he reiterated.

Next, he turned to the population loss plaguing rural communities. When communities struggle, he said, young people leave. Ninety percentage of American counties in persistent poverty are rural, and today 20 percent of farmers are over 65, three times the number in the general workforce. In 1945, the average age of a farmer was 39. In 2010, it's 58.

Vilsack himself owns land, but if his grown sons wanted to farm it, he said, they would have a very hard time. "What I don't want," he said "is a hang-on philosophy," in which rural communities simply get by. "We need to think beyond that, to a day when we can actually turn the corner in the rural economy. We are putting in place a framework to turn that corner."

The secretary outlined that framework, beginning with the Obama administration's commitment to improving markets for farmers and ranchers, both by expanding local and international opportunities.

He mentioned the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, which aims to educate Americans about our food system. "We can't let our children grow up believing food comes from the grocery store," he said.

He commented on a new approach to biotech, in which technologies are harnessed to address problems of climate change, restricted water resources, and chemical and pesticide use, calling for improved diplomacy farmer to farmer, and scientist to scientist.

He expressed the need to diminish unfair advantages held by large producers, leveling the playing field to build "fair, open, expanded markets" for small farmers.

This subject was of particular significance to attendee Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, who questions whether taxpayer dollars are being used to the detriment of independent producers because of the oversized influence in Washingtonof corporate-controlled, vertically integrated agribusinesses.

A popular topic during the question and answer session was the market for biofuels, which Vilsack discussed at length during his address. Biofuel production, he said, has the potential to create 807,000 new jobs in rural America and to generate $95 billion in investment if the U.S. reaches its current production goals.

Plants would be spaced every 100-200 miles, he pointed out, providing multiple sites of production in every state, whether in a region that produces corn-, woody biomass-, algae-, or livestock-based fuels. Biofuels, he said, have a "tremendous future if we set policies in the right direction."

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Broadband access in rural America was the main topic of interest for Darren Farnan of United Electric Cooperative and Randy Klindt of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative, both of whom came to the summit to hear news relevant to their coops' broadband stimulus requests. On average, 41 percent of rural customers have access to broadband service. In Klindt's service area, that number is just 18 percent.

According to Vilsack, 529,000 households are benefiting from stimulus investment in broadband, by way of access to information, to better sourcing of farm inputs, to telemedicine, and to distance learning, which helps keep young people closer to home.

Next, Vilsack commented on opportunities to help rural American capture more of the $730 billion outdoor recreation industry, including conservation and marketing efforts.

And finally, he pointed to the power of emerging ecosystem markets -- for example, paying farmers to preserve water quality, rather than investing in new wastewater treatment plants. The USDA, he said, is establishing an Office of Ecosystem Markets to create systems of accountability to support such programs in the marketplace.

Vilsack concluded by praising the resilience and determination of rural communities, mentioning his time in Afghanistan, where USDA employees are risking their lives alongside the military to improve agriculture there. When he asked these employees why they were there, they told him it was their responsibility.

"It gets back to values," he said. "These are great people. They're humble people. They don't think of themselves as heroes. But they are. That value system that says you have a responsibility to give something back is at risk." The Rural Summit, he hopes, will begin to "put the spotlight where it belongs: on the soul of America." 

Rural summit

During the summit, Vilsack announced four initiatives:

* Recipients in 45 states and Puerto Rico are receiving grants under the Value-Added Producer Grant program authorized by the 2008 farm bill.

* The USDA is seeking applications from microentrepreneurs and microenterprises for grants through the Rural Development Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, also authorized by the farm bill.

* The USDA and Small Business Administration are providing loan guarantees to small businesses in rural areas. Lack of access to financing was a key issue during the Q and A session.

* Recipients in 10 states have been selected to receive aid to spur business lending, with grants totaling $6.7 million.

Government links mentioned during the Summit:

Broadbandusa.gov

Innovation.ed.gov

Whitehouse.gov/open

Margaux Wexberg Sanchez is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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