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Rural America's farms 'less relevant,' Agriculture chief Vilsack says

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 5:22 p.m.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a Squirrel Hill native, cited Congress' failure to pass a farm bill in an election year as an indicator of the declining political clout of rural America. AP

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has some harsh words for rural America: It's “becoming less and less relevant,” he says.

A month after an election that Democrats won even as rural parts of the country voted overwhelmingly Republican, the former Democratic governor of Iowa told Farm Belt leaders last week that he's frustrated with their internecine squabbles and says they need to be more strategic in picking their political fights.

“It's time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” Vilsack said in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal. “It's time for a different thought process here, in my view.”

He said rural America's biggest assets — the food supply, recreational areas and energy, for example — can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the population shifts more to cities, their suburbs and exurbs.

“Why is it that we don't have a farm bill?” asked Vilsack. “It isn't just the differences of policy. It's the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that, and we better begin to reverse it.”

For the first time in recent memory, farm state lawmakers were not able to push a farm bill through Congress in an election year.

The Agriculture Department has reported that about 50 percent of rural counties lost population in the past four years and poverty rates are higher there than in metropolitan areas, despite the booming agricultural economy.

Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks found that rural voters accounted for only 14 percent of the turnout in last month's election, with 61 percent of them supporting Republican Mitt Romney and 37 percent backing President Obama. Two-thirds of those rural voters said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

Vilsack criticized farmers who have embraced wedge issues such as regulation, citing the uproar over the idea that the Environmental Protection Agency was going to start regulating farm dust after the Obama administration said repeatedly it had no so such intention.

In his Washington speech, he cited criticism of a proposed Labor Department regulation, later dropped, that was intended to keep younger children away from the most dangerous farm jobs, and criticism of egg producers for dealing with the Humane Society on increasing the space that hens have in their coops. Livestock producers fearing they will be the next target of animal rights advocates have tried to undo that agreement.

“We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” Vilsack said. “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don't have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now.”

John Weber, a pork producer in Dysart, Iowa, said Friday that farmers have to defend their industries against policies they consider unfair. He said there is great concern among pork producers that animal welfare groups are using unfair tactics and may hurt their business.

“Our role is to defend our producers and our industry in what we feel are issues important to us,” Weber said.

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