Last year was a tough one for farmers and ranchers, and while many are anxious to put it behind them, a number of 2012’s key events will be driving the Agriculture Department’s efforts in 2013, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told attendees at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 94th Annual Meeting.

Chief among those events was the drought and its continuing ramifications, like the significantly low Mississippi River levels. Key lessons Vilsack said he learned from the drought are “the extraordinary resilience of our producers” and the importance of a safety net for agriculture.

In that vein, Vilsack said he and the department will continue to push for passage of a five-year farm bill.

Along with a strong and viable safety net, key components of the legislation are provisions related to reforming credit and conservation programs and continuing the country’s commitment to enhancing trade. Research and biofuels will be important elements, too.

Vilsack also focused on rural America, urging Farm Bureau members to tap into the opportunities a biobased economy presents, “whether producing cutting-edge new products or advanced biofuels from crops and plant products.”

A newly created “USDA Biobased Product” label will link manufacturers of more than 25,000 plant-based products with buyers. The label will help promote production of feedstocks to be converted into biofuel. In addition, research and loan support will promote the development of new-generation refineries.

In addition, USDA will concentrate on promoting investment in rural America through research and collaboration.

“We must create new agricultural products that provide a renewed opportunity for the next generation of American farmers,” Vilsack said.

Equally critical to farmers’ and ranchers’ future is regaining the clout rural America once had. One way to do that is by building strategic alliances in rural America, but not limiting relationships to those in agriculture.

“We have to extend beyond talking to ourselves,” Vilsack said. “We must embrace diversity.”

As an example, groups that are pressing for immigration reform, like those that represent Hispanic interests, would be natural allies.

“I have a feeling 2013 is the year people begin to pay a lot of attention to what goes on in rural America,” Vilsack concluded.