A missionary came to a vineyard in the little town of Dublin, N.C., on Oct. 19.  It was Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and the topic of the sermon he delivered to a few hundred farmers and townspeople was the vital importance of increased access to the Internet.

“I was at a grain elevator earlier today, and we listened to the operator of the elevator,” said Vilsack, standing on a truck bed at LuMil Vineyards. “She said that sometimes she might not quote the exact price of a commodity (to a producer of a commodity.”)

She bemoaned she would need “real time” information to really serve her customers right.

“That is what expanded broadband access will do!” Vilsack said. “It will help the grain elevator do a better job of serving its farmers and ranchers. And the farmers and ranchers themselves need that technology for their marketing efforts.”

There will be many other benefits to rural communities, he said. “Small rural businesses want to expand their marketing opportunities beyond the local market they serve today to a regional or global market. Broadband will help them do it.”

More access to broadband will also be a boon to “anchor institutions” like schools, libraries and medical facilities, he said.

“I know full well that when our hospitals and doctors’ offices have Internet access (to a wider range of records), we won’t have to travel hundreds of miles to a big hospital to get the kind of care we deserve in rural America,” he said. “And when there is bad weather or difficult circumstances, police chiefs and sheriffs could use the broadband to communicate with each other.

“It is a critical component of new revitalized rural economy.”

Vilsack had some good news about acquisition of broadband: Funding was included in the last farm bill and in the stimulus package for this purpose.

The state of North Carolina alone will see almost $150 million invested in the broadband expansion effort in rural communities, Vilsack said. “It is going to help over 129,000 folks who live in rural communities have access to broadband

Change in strategy

He said there has been a change in strategy in Washington relative to how federal resources for broadband expansion are handled.

At first, the theory in Washington was to give administration of all the resources to the Department of Commerce, said Vilsack. “After all, telecommunications is a big business. The problem was that Commerce doesn’t do much work in rural communities.” And it didn’t know that “the greatest needs for broadband in many parts of the country are in rural and remote areas.”

Now, administration of broadband-related resources is divided between the Department of Commerce and USDA, he said. And that should result in much more opportunity in rural areas.

Vilsack addressed several issues while on the speakers’ stand:

• He took a moment to defend his sometimes controversial “Know your farmer, know your food” initiative to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers.

“Today, there is too much distance between the average American and their farmer, and we are marshalling resources from across USDA to help create the link between local production and local consumption,” said a prepared statement.

“This situation encourages us to look for additional new markets other than overseas,” he said. “Why not figure out ways to link up locally with local consumers in local markets? Better connecting the producers with the schools and the hospitals and the institutional purchasers of food, so they know the farmers in their area, can only help. Why send food money a thousand miles away when we can produce most of what we need right here?”

• Generally, 2010 has been a good year for agriculture in the U.S., he said.

“This will be the second best export year on record, with $107 billion of ag exports. The great thing about this is that unlike so many other aspects of our economy that have a trade deficit, in agriculture, we sent $30 million more of our agricultural products out to the world than it sent to us. And every billion dollars of ag exports generates 8,000 to 9,000 jobs. So we are not just helping growers, we are also helping create business opportunities.”

Farm income is expected to be up 24 percent this year, and exports are expected to continue to grow, he said. “We have to continue to have a safety net for all crops,” he said. “We have work to do in that regard.”

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