BY Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade
WASHINGTON — Rural America is in a “silent crisis,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the Cosmos Club on Monday. It is a crisis that, if left unchecked, could have consequences far beyond the countryside.
”There is not an appreciation for the role (farmers) play in our economy,” Vilsack said.
It is from agriculture that this country was started, where the country’s values are rooted, he said, speaking to a national gathering of agricultural journalists.
“It is important to me to have a broad discussion on the fate of rural America,” he said. “We have to have our urban and suburban friends understand that their future is linked to what happens on the farm. Everyone has a stake in this.”
Vilsack wove in stories of his early days as an attorney representing farmers during the 1980s farm credit crisis. He said that those families impacted his life — the heartbreak, the love of the land and the dedication they have to farming.
Today, the crisis might be of a different form, he said, but now is the time for a call to action.
“But if all we do is focus on what we have done before, only better, it will not be enough,” he said. “We have got to do something different.”
The statistics show a difficult story. The farming population is rapidly aging. The number of farms is on the decline; 1 million U.S. farms have been lost in the past 50 years.
“If we look at the future of agriculture, greater emphasis needs to be focused on how to get younger people into this business. Because in the future, we may ‘age out’ of opportunities.”
On-farm income is on the decline. The farm accounts for only 9 percent of a farm household’s income on average. The rest is from off-farm sources.
“The safety net has to be more than direct payments, more than countercyclical payments, more than loan programs. It also has to include quality jobs in rural America,” Vilsack said.
Investments in rural broadband Internet access will help farmers tap into real-time prices for buying and selling goods. It will also allow farmers and rural businesses to expand their reach through online sales.
Renewable energy also is opening up new investment in rural economies. An estimated $95 billion could flow into these economies to meet the nation’s renewable energy mandates.
He said that conservation programs should be looked at not only for their primary mission to improve soil and water quality, but also for new income streams, such as hunting, fishing and participation in ecosystem markets.
Vilsack noted that wastewater treatment plants in Ohio are paying farmers to implement conservation practices on farms instead of paying for more expensive plant upgrades.
“That in turn will create opportunities for farm families to keep the farm,” he said.
The average farmer has “to work 200 days off the farm to keep the farm,” Vilsack said. “But if we want to keep farmers on the land we have to find new income opportunities.”
Most importantly, he added, the conversation has to go beyond the countryside and into urban and suburban communities.
“It is important to understand that this is not just about subsidies,” Vilsack said, referring to the pending Farm Bill. “
It is about rural America and the survival of rural America.”
What happens on the farm is affecting more than the farm family, he said. Rural American communities have lower incomes than their urban and suburban counterparts, and 90 percent of the persistently impoverished counties are rural.
“These people are struggling every day, and they are decent, hardworking folks,” Vilsack said.
Originally published in Lancaster Farming.