Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack kicked off the USDA Rural Summit Thursday at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Mo. talking about the purpose of holding the Rural Summit, which is a continuation of the Rural Tour that was begun last year.
"First and foremost I think it is an opportunity for us to educate the rest of America about the important role that farmers and ranchers and those who live and work and raise families in rural communities play not just in the lives of those who live in those communities, but in the lives of all of us," Vilsack said. "I think it is important for the rest of the country to know the contribution that rural America makes to every family in this country."
Vilsack said that it's obvious that rural America is responsible for providing high quality and abundant food and that the United States is blessed with the most productive and most efficient farmers in the world. Because of the hard work of farm families, ranch families and farm laborers, the U.S. enjoys a tremendous economic advantage.
"Our paychecks get stretched much further in this country than anywhere else in the world," Vilsack said. "Because we have such productive farm families, we spend somewhere between 10% to 15% less of our paycheck for our food, which means that the rest of America enjoys the opportunity and the freedom to do quite a bit more with their lives because of that. They have the capacity to drive a nicer car, or have a bigger house, put money aside for their children's college or increase their retirement nest egg. People in the rest of the country need to understand and appreciate that it's not just their hard work that stretches that paycheck, it's also the hard work of farm and ranch families in this country."
Vilsack also talked about the fact that agriculture is a job creator. He told those gathered that one out of every 12 jobs in America today is connected to what takes place on farms and ranches. In addition to satisfying our own country's needs, we are able to sell our surplus to the rest of the world.
So often when talking about trade the discussion focuses on the trade deficit. But Vilsack says in one sector that is not the case.
"In agriculture we have a trade surplus," Vilsack said. "We are anticipating and expecting that overall we'll have about $108 billion in ag exports during the fiscal year that will end Sept. 30. That would be the second highest year for exports in the history since we've been keeping track of exports. We'll have a $28 billion surplus if we reach that $108 billion mark. For every billion dollars of trade activity we produce somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs in this country. So at a time when we are emerging from a difficult economic time, every dollar that we increase in trade opportunities results in increased job opportunities as well."
Vilsack said it's not just the jobs or the stretching of the paycheck that is important in terms of what farmers and rural Americans do for the rest of the country. It's also about water. Eighty percent of the surface drinking water in this country is impacted by what happens on the farm so folks in rural communities are responsible in large part for tens of millions of Americans being able to enjoy quality water. Vilsack also talked about renewable fuels.
"We are emerging into a circumstance where farming and ranching will also help us produce more fuel and energy for this country, and renewable sources and biofuels," Vilsack said. "As we deal with the consequences of having to import foreign oil and what that does to our economy and how difficult it is for us to see our hard earned dollars going to countries that don't necessarily agree with us and at the same time we are witnessing what's taking place in the Gulf of Mexico it seems to me that people ought to recognize and appreciate that farmers and ranchers are ready to step up and alleviate some of that pressure. To transfer from our dependence on fossil fuels, and particularly foreign oil, to be able to create opportunities in rural America that are unlimited."
Beyond those contributions from rural America, Vilsack pointed out the values system of this country. He spoke about the fact that 90% of the people who founded this country came from rural upbringings and that they understood that if you expected something to grow and prosper that you had to sacrifice; you had to put something back in the ground; you had to continue to contribute to Mother Nature so it could in turn contribute to you.
"That value is reflected in the fact that while rural America represents but a sixth of the population of the country yet it's 45% of the people that serve us in uniform," Vilsack said. "I think it's that value system that we raise our children with; that it isn't just about taking, it's about giving; it's about supporting your country; it's about giving something back to your country because your country gives so much to you. So when we talk about what rural America does for the rest of the country you can see that it's extraordinary and the rest of the country needs to know about it. And needs to understand that when we talk about various farm programs or bills or things for rural America it's about supporting affordable food, quality water, new fuels and energy sources, trade surpluses, jobs and the value system of this country. So one reason we're having this meeting today is for the rest of the country to understand what sometimes in rural America we take for granted. The rest of the country needs to know what we do."