Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent an hour talking about rural development at the Iowa State Fair on Friday, August 19.
Friday's event followed President Obama's White House Rural Economic Forum in Peosta, Iowa, earlier in the week. Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA has signed an agreement with the Council on Foundations to provide new sources of capital, new job opportunities, workforce investment strategies, and identification of additional resources that can be used to spur economic growth in rural America.
The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding builds on meetings the Secretary had last month during the Council on Foundations Rural Philanthropy Conference in Kansas City, Mo., where he called on representatives of the philanthropic community to "Step up, take risks, and work creatively create jobs, improve the quality of life and make an impact on rural America.
"This partnership sets a path to greater economic opportunities for rural communities by ensuring a better use of resources," Vilsack said. "Under the Obama Administration, USDA is partnering with philanthropic organizations to effectively leverage funds to improve the quality of life and create jobs in rural America. Working together, the government and its partners will boost the effectiveness of efforts to create economic opportunity in communities and regions of our Nation that need support."
In June, President Obama signed an Executive Order establishing the first White House Rural Council, chaired by Secretary Vilsack. As chair of the Rural Council, Secretary Vilsack is working to coordinate USDA programs across the government and encourage public-private partnerships to improve economic conditions and create jobs in rural communities.
Vilsack also touched on other developments. He noted the current year will set records for exports and added that will increase when free trade agreements are passed this fall. He said the U.S. now has a trade surplus of $22 billion – it was only $4.8 billion five years ago.
He also announced a new initiative between USDA and the departments of energy and defense. "We want to create a fuel industry that doesn't exist – using biofuels for aviation." Plans include building a commercial refinery.
Responding to a question from the audience, Vilsack said he is working on trimming expenses at USDA. For example, he said when he arrived he discovered the department had 85 cell phone contracts. He has pared that down. He also noted there were 10 email accounts. "Now we have one and that saves us $50 million.
On opening up more Conservation Reserve Acres, Vilsack noted there was not as much interest in the last signup and some of the acres enrolled where not as qualified as they should be. It's time to look at CRP and the competition for those acres. Maybe double cropping is an option. But we need to keep highly erodible acres in CRP."
Regarding the next farm bill he stated, "In the past policy has driven funding. This time funding will drive policy." He said "we need to start with a set of principles" such as a safety net that meets the needs of a diverse group of farmers, a commitment to conservation, a commitment to exports. "Farmers are only about 1% of the population and we have to convince the other 99% the farm bill is for them as well."