Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a clear message to farmers and ranchers attending the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 93rd Annual Meeting.

“Agriculture and rural America matter, and no group understands that better than the men and women who lead Farm Bureau,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack also had high praise for agriculture as being responsible for one in every 12 jobs in America, and he focused on the need to address challenges facing the United States and the world.

Last year, American agricultural exports amounted to $137.4 billion, which led to a $42 billion farm trade surplus, and direct support for more than 1 million American jobs, according to Vilsack.

The secretary pledged to Farm Bureau members that USDA would continue to listen to their concerns and would work with other federal departments and agencies on regulatory issues with potential impacts on rural America, including dust and youth labor rules.

USDA is working as agriculture’s partner on a wide range of essential services across the board, Vilsack said, ranging from resource conservation and agricultural financing to crop insurance and rural development.

Vilsack praised agriculture for its role in keeping the nation strong, saying that “the unemployment rate is dropping more quickly in rural America than any other sector of our country.”

Farm bill direction

To help keep agriculture robust, Vilsack outlined several essential points that he considers vital to the next farm bill, including:

• Providing an adequate safety net when it is needed most, with a combination of provisions including crop insurance and some form of revenue protection program.

• A continued focus on stewardship and conservation programs, with added flexibility and the ability to leverage federal funds to the fullest extent possible.

• Provisions to continue promoting and expanding international trade for agriculture.

• A well-funded research effort to continue a trend that saw agriculture rank second in productivity gains among all economic sectors since 1980.

• Better support programs for beginning farmers, including programs to expand local and regional food systems.

Vilsack said agriculture and rural America are only barely skimming the surface in making a positive impact on the nation. He called for a focus on bio-based economies for rural communities, which he said offered “unlimited potential” for rural America.

While emphasizing USDA’s continued commitment to America’s farmers and ranchers, Vilsack announced a reallocation of USDA facilities and resources in light of the government’s budget challenges. That includes a workforce decrease of more than 7,000 employees, streamlining of services and the consolidation and closing of 250 USDA offices across the country.

Of those offices, 131 are Farm Service Agency offices, Vilsack said. Of those, 35 already had no staffing and the remainder had either one or two employees and all were within 20 miles of another FSA office capable of handling farmer and rancher clients. He expressed optimism that providing service online would become a more viable option and assured farmers and ranchers that USDA service would not be sacrificed.

He closed by commending those who call rural America home. He cited the example of 50 percent of the U.S. military force hailing from rural America, while only 16 percent of the nation’s population lives in rural areas. He called rural America “an extraordinary place” to which the rest of the nation “owes a debt of gratitude.”