ARLINGTON, VA. — Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is optimistic about the future of rural America.
In opening remarks on Feb. 25 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 92nd annual Agricultural Outlook Forum at the Crystal Gateway Marriott hotel in Arlington, Va., Mr. Vilsack delivered a strong message.
“I think there is a tendency at a time when we’re confronted with, understandably, softer commodity prices and declining farm income to look at things in a fairly pessimistic view,” Mr. Vilsack said. “Well, candidly, I don’t share that pessimistic view about the current circumstance — notwithstanding the challenges. And I certainly don’t have that pessimistic view when it comes to the future of rural America and agriculture.”
Mr. Vilsack said the unemployment rate is falling in rural America, with 71 consecutive months of job growth after a very steep decline in all parts of the country as part of the Great Recession. He also said the poverty rate has dropped dramatically in the last few years in rural America. He said the programs and diversity of the U.S.D.A. has helped rural America thrive.
“While we have to be concerned, obviously, about softer prices because we have to continue to look for ways to expand market opportunities to reduce inputs, the reality is that because of the investments, and the hard work of (those) working in partnership with the U.S.D.A. I’m optimistic about the future,” Mr. Vilsack said.
“I’m extraordinarily optimistic about the future because I see the potential for expanded exports,” he said. Specifically, he mentioned the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s potential.
Mr. Vilsack said America has increased its productivity 170% during his lifetime, remarkable when considering it was achieved on 26% less land than what was farmed during 1950.
“It’s an incredible story of efficiency and productivity for which American farmers and agriculture do not receive the credit and acknowledgement they deserve,” he said.
Trade is important to agriculture, and trade is important to the United States, Mr. Vilsack said. He said the United States should be dominating the Cuban market. The United States has the ability to get product to market fast, but Mr. Vilsack said the United States has been “stymied” by an embargo in Cuba that has outlived its usefulness.
“The embargo prevents the U.S.D.A. from using any of its promotion programs, any of its market assistance programs,” he said. “We’re now looking for ways to potentially use the check-offs to allow American producers to at least begin building the foundation for a trade relationship that is much more robust.”
Mr. Vilsack said he also continues to be optimistic because he’s seeing new technology and advancements occurring in agriculture.
“We’re in the process now of having an interesting conversation in our country about science,” he said. “No entity, no business relies more on science than agriculture, and we need to look for creative ways to advance new technologies to streamline the processes through which new technologies are approved and then begin to convince the rest of the world to make those new technologies available.”
Finally, he said he thinks the clean energy future is one that plays well in rural America. He pointed to “unlimited opportunities,” especially through biomass, to create new energy sources that provide fewer problems for the climate.“So, while there are challenges, and there are difficulties in certain sectors, overall I’m optimistic about American agriculture and optimistic about the future of our great country,” he said.