Will Rural Summit Be End or Beginning?

The Rural Summit, held last week in Missouri, was the end of the Obama Administration's Rural Tour. The question now is whether what was learned over the last few months will translate into federal legislation.

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The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s long road to Hillsboro, Missouri – the final stop on its Rural Tour of the past 15 months or so – has been paved with good intentions.

The national “Rural Summit: Renewing America’s Promise,” held on June 3 in Hillsboro (population about 1700) shows the Obama Administration’s good faith. But will the Administration be able to deliver on its good intentions? If not, it won’t be for lack of effort.

Leading up to the summit, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his staff visited 26 small towns in about 20 states and listened to several thousand rural residents about rural problems and opportunities.

(You can watch the full rural summit here.)

All of these meetings were part of an unfolding Obama Administration effort to figure out how to revitalize rural areas. The summit, which drew about 400 participants to the Jefferson College campus, was said to be the culmination of that Rural Tour.

Let’s hope it’s more like a commencement. 

As the day began, Vilsack sketched out the Administration’s framework for a potential rural revitalization bill. He built on the foundation from the Rural Tour, carefully laying out the case for increased attention to rural areas.

For example, he noted that the hard work of farmers creates a tremendous economic advantage. First, high farm productivity means lower food prices that allows people to have more discretionary income. Second, high levels of agricultural exports mitigate the country’s nagging foreign trade deficit. Finally, he said, agriculture creates jobs across the economy, from food to energy.

USDA
Secretary Tom Vilsack speaking at the Rural Summit.

Vilsack hoped the Rural Summit would gain the attention of urban and suburban residents so they will appreciate rural America’s contributions to the economy, water conservation, energy, and to the nation’s values. 

According to Vilsack, revitalizing rural America is not only about job creation. It’s also about water, which carries an obligation for rural landowners. People in rural communities “are responsible for allowing tens of millions of Americans to enjoy a glass of water,” he said.

Biofuels and renewable energy are also part of the Administration’s vision, with energy security a major justification. In addition, biofuels production plays to the nation’s strong suit of agricultural productivity. Farmers and ranchers “are ready to step up and provide fuels,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack reminded conference participants about important rural values, including patriotism, a sense of obligation, and putting something back into the ground. Rural people are “great people” and “humble people” who “don’t think of themselves as special,” Vilsack said. 

What could a rural revitalization bill and the 2012 Farm Bill look like? Vilsack said he doesn’t “want a ‘just hang on’ philosophy. We need to think beyond (that)…. We are putting in place a framework to turn that corner … a framework for opportunities.”

The framework would focus on agriculture because, Vilsack noted, increased demand for farm products would improve prices and make farmers and their communities more prosperous. Strategies that are already in use and being explored for further opportunities include:

Foreign trade Analyze each country and develop different strategies to approach trade. Make sure trade agreements are binding.

Biotechnology An important component of the new program, biotechnology could be a possible response to climate change and water and pesticide use. There will be a need to build coalitions and reduce barriers to trade.

USDA
FFA members took some of the cheap seats in the bleachers at Jefferson College, where the Rural Summit was held.

Feed the Future Initiative The USDA is working to reduce hunger worldwide by increasing farm productivity in less developed countries. (See more about the Feed the Future Initiative here.)

Regional Food Systems – Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Vilsack sought to address misunderstandings about USDA’s Know Your Farmer project. He noted that the importance of connections between people and local food farmers needs to grow, including markets for schools and other local facilities. This will increase local demand and wealth, keeping jobs in communities. Vilsack said these local markets did not diminish production agriculture, but would help assure markets are fair and competitive.

Biofuels and energy Vilsack sees an “extraordinary opportunity” for creating wealth in rural areas through the construction of a nationwide network of alternative energy facilities. The Ag Secretary said the country would have to revamp the energy distribution system, convince Detroit to build energy-efficient cars, improve access to credit for rural energy producers and develop developing bioenergy co-products. There are “tremendous opportunities if we set good policy” both to build the rural economy and to improve the nation’s security, Vilsack said.

21st century infrastructure Accessible broadband is crucial for rural businesses seeking to expand globally, reduce costs, provide health care or access real-time agricultural information.

Forestry, outdoor recreation, and conservation Vilsack said rural communities must take full advantage of outdoor recreation opportunities such as hunting, hiking, and fishing to increase economic benefits for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. He also said he favored paying farmers to preserve water quality, adding that the U.S. Forest Service is integral to USDA’s efforts to reach out to private landowners about forest and water protection. Carbon sequestration potentially could bring millions of dollars to rural communities, he said.

The Rural Summit illustrated the Administration’s rural priorities and the complexity of rural issues and opportunities. Widely different rural voices are trying to be heard in the context of wider national and global interests.

While discussions of agriculture tended to dominate the day, Vilsack emphasized the need for a unified voice for agriculture. The subtext of his remarks was that farms, towns and regions needed to cooperate in order for rural areas to compete in a global political economy.

As the 2012 Farm Bill evolves in Congress, the big question is how the Obama Administration’s good intentions will pave a new road to revitalize rural America. Vilsack promised that the Hillsboro summit will “not [be] the end of the conversation. We’re taking these ideas back to Washington,” adding, “I am committed to listening to the grassroots.”

Congress and the lobbyists will have a lot to say about rural revitalization and the Farm Bill in the coming months. We’ll see what happens with USDA’s good intentions there. 

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

 

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