Yesterday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted the National Summit for Rural America in Hillsboro, Missouri. Why hold a rural summit, you ask? While just 17 percent of Americans reside in rural areas, rural economies, and in particular the farmers and ranchers that support them, are critical to the health of the nation’s economy. Rural areas also house the bulk of U.S. land, the precious resource from which we draw the water we drink and food we eat.
It was a timely event for Farm Aid to attend on the heels of the release of our new report, Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems.
Not surprisingly, the event boasted attendees from rural communities across the country, but was noticeably packed with farmers and ranchers of all types. It was also chock-full of USDA bureaucrats (I use the term fondly, of course), including Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, oh-so-many Undersecretaries and Deputy Undersecretaries, Farm Service Agency staff, local Missouri-based USDA staff, and many others. There were also several Farm Aid partners attending, including the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Rural Coalition, and several familiar faces from last year’s Farm Aid concert in St. Louis.
Morning speeches highlighted central strategies the Obama Administration is employing to revitalize rural economies nationwide, including building new infrastructure for local and regional food systems, renewable energy investments, rural broadband access, and many others. A diverse set of voices were present, and the public question and answer session showed the concerns of everyone from conventional soybean farms, to organic vegetable producers, to yours truly. I was excited and honored to stand at the microphone and announce the release of our report to Secretary Vilsack and the event’s attendees. I also pressed the Secretary for more in depth action on addressing the credit and risk management needs of family farmers and ranchers nationwide.
The afternoon was filled with breakout sessions where groups could speak more fully about the most pressing issues facing rural communities today. Conversations were at times heated, but always informative, productive and respectful.
The summit proved to be a fantastic opportunity for dialogue and information exchange. I was pleased to hear some of the same language from our report being used in conversation–from direct markets to “agriculture of the middle” and “mid-scale food value chains.” There is still so much work to be done to ensure that our family farmers and ranchers can thrive and access markets that guarantee them fair prices and tap into growing consumer demand for Good Food. Onward!