Vilsack Emphasizes Importance of Rural America

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent a busy day on campus Tuesday interacting with students and many others as the featured speaker for the second annual Dale and Betty Bumpers Distinguished Lecture Series. The event was hosted by the Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

Vilsack visited with an honors class early Tuesday, was the guest at a luncheon with friends and supporters of the Bumpers College, addressed a crowded E.J. Ball Courtroom at the School of Law, answering many questions from students, met with local media for a news conference and attended a reception in the atrium of the School of Law before leaving campus.

In his lecture, Vilsack, who served two terms as governor of Iowa and served in the Iowa State Senate early in his political career, emphasized the importance of rural America and farming, and how the nation benefits.

“To live and work in America means you have access to a tremendous amount of food, and most of it is produced here,” he said. “We would not have to import anything. We are a very food-secure nation, but there are very few nations that can say that.”

Vilsack said Americans typically spend 6 to 15 cents per dollar on food compared to 10 to 20 cents per dollar in other countries, giving Americans more flexibility with their paychecks.

He also touched on energy sources – oil, natural gas, wind and solar, and how most of that comes from rural America; that 16 percent of our population lives, works and raises its family in rural areas, but 40 percent of the nation’s military personnel come from those areas; and that 32,000 farms produce 50 percent of our food. He also discussed the short-, medium- and long-term threats to agriculture.

“Our short-term threat is we don’t have enough people to do the work that needs to be done on farms and in processing plants,” he said. “We have had a broken immigration system for years, and it threatens the survival of agriculture. The nation needs comprehensive immigration reform that addresses agricultural jobs. We have food rotting because we don’t have the work force we need. If we don’t address this issue, we will end up seeing agribusiness moving operations elsewhere.”

The medium-term threat is “far too many young people look for better opportunities off the farm.” He said there are more farmers 65 years old and older than 35 years old and younger.

He said the long-term threat is the climate.

“The year before last, we had floods; last year, we had droughts,” he said. “Hurricanes and tornadoes are more severe. It’s getting warmer and the weather is getting more intense. We need a strategy to produce more food with less water. We need that research now.”

Vilsack also discussed the importance of the farm bill and the need to expand conservation opportunities. He noted outdoor recreation is a $656 billion annual industry.

“We spend a lot of money to hunt, fish, hike and bike,” he said. “We also need to expand our local and regional food systems.”

In the question and answer session, he was asked how this generation of college graduates may shape agriculture policy.

 “You have the ability to redefine what it means to be rural and do a better job of educating people about agriculture to meet our critical challenges,” he responded. “The USDA is a representative of the people we work for and understands what career opportunities there are. You have to take a chance on rural America and come back to your small town with your talent.”

When asked about the USDA’s relationship with the Department of Education, he said: “We are promoting agriculture education in the classroom to make superintendents and school board members understand. Three billion more people are going to grace the earth in your lifetime. Who’s going to feed them? Where is the food going to come from?”

When asked about the USDA’s support of research, he said: “I believe you are going to see an increase in research. There’s a good correlation between productivity and research. We have to pay attention to that. I think we’ll get a receptive audience from Congress, and I think you’ll see more money in research.”

Before going into his opening remarks, Vilsack acknowledged Senator Bumpers, who was in attendance.

“When I set out in public service 25 years ago, Dale Bumpers was the one public servant I most chose to emulate,” he said. “I only hope to accomplish half as much as he did during his tenure.”

Bumpers was a U.S. Senator from 1975 to 1999 and governor of Arkansas from 1971 to 1975. During his Senate service, particularly as a member and chair of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, he played a major role in bringing Arkansas agriculture into national and international prominence. He worked for and secured more than $80 million in funds for facilities and programs that directly benefited the state.

Vilsack is the nation’s 30th secretary of agriculture. A native of Pittsburgh, Penn., Vilsack was born into an orphanage and adopted in 1951. After graduating from Hamilton College and Albany Law School, he moved to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, his wife Christie's hometown, where he practiced law.

The Tyson Family Foundation and the Tyson Foods Foundation made a gift to help endow the Dale and Betty Bumpers Distinguished Lecture Series, which was launched in April 2012 with a visit from President Bill Clinton.

The series symbolizes the Bumpers College’s focus on three vital issues: the international prominence of Arkansas agriculture and food industries; the importance of environmental stewardship and sustainability for the strength and vibrancy of our economy; and the quality of life as championed by Betty Bumpers on behalf of child wellness, human development and healthy living choices. The college seeks to advance the business of foods and impact of foods on human health, environmental sustainability and human quality of life.


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