Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addresses the National Rural Assembly.

Tom Vilsack didn’t pull out his prepared speech at his keynote address to the National Rural Assembly on Wednesday, but he had no trouble sticking to a theme.

Responding to questions from Rural Assembly participants throughout his 45-minute session, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack accentuated the positive while acknowledging the negative.

“Rural America is where the solutions are,” Vilsack said, citing clean energy production, secure food supply, and new solutions for combatting climate change.

But Vilsack also took an opportunity to focus on new initiatives at USDA addressing the tenacious problem of rural child poverty.

VIDEO: Secretary Tom Vilsack says USDA asked private philanthropy to do more, and they did less rural funding.

He said the department is doing a better job of coordinating its efforts in nutrition, housing, and other initiatives for greater impact. He said the department is attempting to serve the needs of both parents and children as a way to strengthen families.

“Instead of programs for the family and a separate one for the child, why not bring the full force of those programs together to help at the same time – a two generation strategy that can help move the dial for that family and child,” he said.

But Vilsack spent more time focusing on rural assets than problems. And he challenged rural advocates to do the same.

“We can’t just focus on the troubles,” responding to a question about the average age of farmers increasing.

“You want people to get young people into farming, here’s what I hear from farmers: ‘I’m over-regulated, I work too hard, I need a second job.’ I say, ‘That’s your marketing plan?’ Why not talk about connection to the land, providing food for the world and food security for our nation?”

Vilsack challenged private philanthropy and private enterprise to do more in rural America. He said the discussion about increasing rural philanthropy had not resulted in a change in investment.

“We began early [in his tenure at USDA] to have a conversation with the private foundation world,” he said. “What we’ve seen unfortunately, tragically, is not an increase in investment; we’ve actually seen a decrease. … Private philanthropy needs to understand the role that rural America is going to play in the really big picture.”

A recent USDA report found that rural grantees received only 6 to 7 percent of private foundation grants from 2005 to 2010, while rural residents account for 19 percent of the nation’s population.

Rick Cohen, who moderated a panel on rural philanthropy before Vilsack’s presentation, wrote in a Nonprofit Quarterly column that Vilsack’s frustration with foundations likely stemmed from an agreement USDA made with the Council on Foundations to explore ways to increase rural funding. That work didn’t result in the intended results, Cohen wrote:

When a deal is cut with the foundation sector’s trade association with the obvious purpose of increasing foundations’ rural investment and the results are actually negative, that should be a wake-up call for foundations—and their nonprofit partners.

Vilsack said the foundation focus on reaching the largest number of people with grants was penalizing rural. The practice is short-sighted, he said.

“Philanthropy needs to see the big picture on issues like climate change,” he said. “Where are we going to sequester carbon, where are we going to generate clean energy? Rural is crucial. You can’t put up a windmill in the middle of New York City. Rural is where most of the massive amounts of clean energy is going to be produced. If you aren’t investing there, you’re not going to have the energy future you want.

He said rural advocates need to carry the message about rural America’s central role in creating opportunity and solutions. “Folks, this is an important place, and it needs to be treated as such,” he said.

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