[imgcontainer right] [img:TomV.jpeg] Tom Vilsack [/imgcontainer]

Editor’s Note: On December 6, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the Farm Forum. This was Vilsack’s “relevance” speech — where the Ag Secretary said rural America needed to start talking about its dwindling impact on national politics.

Vilsack’s talk launched dozens of commentaries, from The Economist magazine to editorials in local weekly newspapers. It was an important speech, but we realized here at the Yonder that we had never printed in full what Secretary Vilsack had said.

So here it is, at least the last large section of the speech where the Secretary challenges us to have an “adult conversation” about rural America’s future. You can find the full transcript here.

Secretary Vilsack:

Now, we’ve had this discussion about the Farm Bill. Why is it that we don’t have a Farm Bill? It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that the Rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that, and we better begin to reverse it.

That means a couple of things. It means, first of all, a new attitude in Rural America, not just trying to preserve what we’ve got – and there’s a lot of that thought process, “I’m just going to hang onto what I have” – replacing that preservation mindset with a growth mindset. Where are the opportunities?

Now, I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been to hear the conversation that we’ve had for the last couple of years about regulations, regulations that either didn’t exist, weren’t going to exist, or that were taken care of. I read a survey recently where people were still talking about the dust rule. Not going to happen, never going to happen. People are still concerned about the child labor issue. Not going to happen, never going to happen. We dealt with this, but yet we continue to talk about it. Why? Because they’re fearful. We’re fearful. We’re not looking at this extraordinary future ahead of us. We’re trying to hang onto what we got.

We need a proactive message, not a reactive message. How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in Rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message? Because you’re competing against the world now and opportunities everywhere. 

When I was growing up a kid in Pittsburgh, you know, maybe I’d end up in Iowa, but it never occurred to me that I could end up in one of the foreign countries in all of the continents of the world, never even occurred to me. Young people today have all of these opportunities, and we expect them and want them to live and work and raise their families and keep the farm or start a business in Rural America, but we have a reactive message; we don’t have a proactive message.

We have to be strategic about the fights that we pick, because the fights we often pick are misinterpreted in some corners. Sixteen percent of America’s population lives in Rural America. That means, in essence, 16 percent of the elected Representatives represent Rural America; 84 percent don’t.

So for example – and I know I’m going to get heck for this – the egg producers decide they want to sit down and walk to the enemy, the Humane Society. They’re tired of having to fight referendum after referendum. They don’t want 50 sets of rules. They want one set of rule. They want one rule, and they want to make peace. They get castigated by folks in agriculture, “You’re going to destroy the system.” Actually not. We’re going to grow it, because we’re not going to be fighting 50 different battles every 2 years. We are going to grow our industry. We’re going to be proactive. We’re going to fight a good fight, a strategic fight, one that’s worth fighting.

Now, the last message is that Rural America has got to embrace diversity. It’s not just the Republican Party. It’s the folks who live in Rural America, because young people today, they see the world differently. They see it in various shades, and we have got to have a message that understands and appreciates diversity.

Ten years ago, how many people in this country lived in Rural America? It was more than 16 percent. Twenty years ago, how many? Thirty years ago? Forty years ago? Fifty years ago? A hundred years ago? A hundred and fifty years ago when this Department was formed? Ninety percent of the people in this country were connected in some way to Rural America. Today it’s 16 percent, and it keeps on getting older, and it keeps on reducing.

So it’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in Rural America. It is a great place. It is contributing more than just about any other place I can think of in this country. The food supply, 88 percent of the water is impacted and affected by what happens in Rural America; the places we go to for solitude, most of them located in rural parts of the country. The ability to deal with climate change, most of that is going to occur in rural areas. Our energy supply, almost all the feedstock, I don’t care whether it’s coal, natural gas, whether it’s oil, whether it’s renewable energy, the source of that is in Rural America. 

And of course, the notion that a disproportionate number of young people serve in the military coming from Rural America, and the value system of this country rooted in Rural America. It’s not a place that can be ignored and shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a place that should be at the highest level of priority in this capital, but yet we can’t get a Farm Bill done. Folks, it’s time for a different thought process here in my view, and the makings of this great economy, this exciting, innovative, creative economy that will attract people from all over the world and that will do extraordinarily new things that will put America back in the business of making and creating again is rooted in Rural America. 

So for me, the Farm Bill is more than the safety net. As important as that is, we got to have that, but it’s also the tools to be able to continue to promote conservation and the tools to be able to promote the biobased economy and the tools to be able to expand local markets and the tools to be able to promote the best and greatest agriculture in the world through exports. 

That’s why I’m excited about the future, but I do think we have to have a truthful conversation and one where we don’t get criticized for saying things that might be a little bit controversial, but one where we think, “Well, maybe that guy has got a point.” We have to have that kind of conversation.

So I thought I’d take today to start it.

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