The Norman Transcript

September 17, 2009

Agriculture secretary bullish on rural America

By Andrew W. Griffin

EL RENO -- As part of a "Rural Tour" of America, assigned to him by President Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former governor of Iowa and a lawyer, made a stop before a large group of people assembled at Redlands Community College in El Reno.

The visit to El Reno, his only "Rural Tour" stop in Oklahoma, is the 19th stop on the tour, following stops in towns ranging from Bethel, Alaska, to St. John Parish, La. During the tour, Vilsack has made it his goal to listen to rural folks and discuss ways to better rural life and communities.

"It is critically important to hear the thoughts, concerns and stories about Oklahoma's vision for its future and to collect ideas about how USDA can better serve these communities," Vilsack said.

Set in a town hall type format, Vilsack made opening remarks about the goals of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and how it is working to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply, ensure that America leads the global fight against climate change and revitalize rural communities by expanding economic opportunities.

Vilsack discussed a new USDA initiative called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," which he said was to help spur economic opportunities in rural areas by helping develop local and regional food systems.

He also addressed the USDA's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act efforts that are under way in Oklahoma and across America.

More than 1,500 Rural Development loans worth $165 million in Oklahoma have been accepted, and there are many programs and grants that are being used in rural America as a result of USDA's pro-rural community efforts.

During the question and answer portion of the meeting, a question was asked about the future that faces young people looking for a career in agriculture.

"A huge problem we face is one of research," Vilsack said. "With invasive species, disease ... this alone costs farmers billions and billions in losses ... we need bright young people to go into science."

Vilsack talked about fellow Iowan Norman Borlaug, who died over the weekend, and was a pioneer in bioscience and wheat production as well as a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Vilsack said if Borlaug were here, he would tell the young people studying agriculture at Redlands to pursue ways to provide food to all the people of the world.

"If we want to be safe as a country, people need to be well fed," Vilsack said, noting that if people in the Third World are properly fed, "They won't revolt and won't want to blow things up."

Vilsack, asked about climate change, said he believes it is happening and spoke of a visit to Colorado where the catastrophic destruction of Lodgepole pine trees is due to a beetle that kills the trees. Vilsack pointed to warmer temperatures in North America not killing off the beetles as was the case before warmer temperatures became more common.

Asked about emissions trading or "cap and trade" and its effect on Oklahoma's agricultural economy, Vilsack noted having taken part in a recent climate change task force project with the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I'm convinced (climate change) is real," Vilsack said. "There are significant ramifications if it's not addressed."

"Other countries recognize it's real and understand the economic opportunities it presents. Innovation will thrive," he said.

But if America does not keep that "innovative edge," other countries will take note and it will hurt the U.S. in the long run.

"Trade and international cooperation on terrorism will be affected if we don't innovate and cap and trade is not passed," he said.

"As we embrace innovation, it will be a good thing for agriculture," Vilsack said. "The future of the (cap and trade) bill is in some part linked to health care. If health care is passed, cap and trade has a better chance."

And when asked by a Hispanic activist about immigration reform, Vilsack admitted that there is still much work to be done. Demonizing either side of the issue is counterproductive, he said. Understanding the full issue is important, he said, noting issues related to migrants working in agriculture back home in Iowa.

"I think we need to listen to each other," he said. "I think we'll come up with a more rational system than we have today. I think we want comprehensive immigration reform."

Over all, Vilsack offered a positive future of the future of rural America, noting more and more people moving to rural areas of the country to work as farmers and ranchers. Small farms are on the rise, despite the average age of a farmer in America being 57.

"I really think there is a renaissance in rural America," Vilsack said.