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By Jerry Hagstrom, Published December 21 2012

Vilsack urges strategy in political fights

WASHINGTON – In his first major speech since the election, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Dec. 6 directly addressed Republican criticism of the Obama administration during the election campaign, and said leaders in rural America need to take on a “new attitude” that replaces “trying to preserve what we’ve got” with “a growth mindset.”

Exit polls showed that 59 percent of rural Americans voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and a pre-election poll taken for AgriPulse showed that about 75 percent of farmers with more than 500 acres intended to vote for Romney.

Vilsack told a Farm Journal Forum audience of big farmers and agribusiness executives that he has found it “frustrating to hear conversation about regulations that didn’t exist or were taken care of,” such as proposals to regulate dust on farm roads or change child farm labor rules that the administration already rejected.

Only 16 percent of Americans now live in rural areas, and that percentage could continue to drop if young rural Americans do not see a reason to stay there, Vilsack said. He noted that rural America already has lost political power because of the population loss, and said that is a major reason the U.S. House has not felt compelled to take up the farm bill.

“Why is it we don’t have a farm bill?” Vilsack asked. “It isn’t just differences of policy. It is because rural America with its shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of the country.”

The fact that “we can’t get a farm bill done” shows “it is time for a different thought process. It is time for us to have an adult conversation in rural America,” Vilsack said.

During a question-and-answer period, Vilsack said rural Americans have taken a questionable position in the debate over cutting food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Vilsack said he wants to continue to increase efficiency and reduce fraud and abuse, but that SNAP is “a good example of a battle that we are having that is not strategic.”

He noted that 90 percent of the people who get food stamps are senior citizens, people with disabilities, children or working people who can’t make ends meet.

Rural Americans, he said, “stigmatize those people” and view the program as a competitor to farm subsidies without realizing that the money food stamp beneficiaries spend goes to grocers and ultimately to farmers.

The cornerstones for the future of rural America, Vilsack said, are agriculture and exports, biofuels, and local and regional food systems, which will provide an opportunity for population growth and recreation.

The goal, he said, should be to “take everything we grow and turn it into an opportunity. Virtually everything we need in an economy can be plant-based and biobased.”