On the eve of President Obama’s tour of rural America, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack signaled Monday that the administration will launch a campaign focusing on that part of the country’s problems, and use the next farm bill to improve the prospects for the creation of off-farm jobs.
In a speech Monday to the North American Agricultural Journalists, Vilsack said the government needs to try new approaches to reverse trends that show rural America to have a declining, aging population whose incomes are falling farther and farther behind urban and suburban Americans.
Vilsack repeated statements he made last week before the House Agriculture Committee, saying that urban Americans need to be more aware that farmers not only produce a generally cheap food supply but bolster the economy in general through exports.
But Vilsack also said farmers need a safety net, and that farm subsidies have not proven to be enough to keep people in rural America. More rural development programs are needed so that young people will see a future there, he said. "If all we do is focus on what we’ve done, we’re going to continue to see" the same statistics of decline, he said.
Vilsack noted that Lucas’ district includes a county that had the nation’s second-highest increase in poverty, and he suggested that new approaches be tried there to reverse the trends.
The agriculture secretary also defended the administration’s proposal in the FY11 budget to cut farm subsidies to the largest producers. The proposed cut would affect only 30,000 of the 1.2 million farmers who get subsidies, he said.
In a separate speech to the farm journalists, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said that she, too, is trying to educate urban people about rural America, USDA and the farm bill.
Merrigan has toured 11 college campuses as part of the administration’s "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign, and she said she always asks students what percentage of USDA spending goes to subsidies. Most students think the bulk of federal farm dollars go for subsidies, she said, and they gasp when she shows them a pie chart indicating that 69 percent of USDA’s budget goes to nutrition programs.
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