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View From the Hill: Innovation and growth for rural America

By Grace Boatright, National Grange Legislative Director (View From The Hill Blog 12/20/12)

  DECEMBER 21, 2012 --

I attended an ag conference this morning at the Chamber of Commerce (a whole 20 yards from the Grange building), focusing on growing innovation and opportunities for American agriculture. Secretary Vilsack even appeared to speak to the group about what he and the USDA are doing to ensure that agriculture in this country has all of the tools it requires to remain innovative. I’m a pretty big fan of Secretary Vilsack and believe that he’s a good man who is truly dedicated to the growth and success of rural America. In this economy and in these troubling times, it’s good to know that a man like Vilsack is looking out for us. 

During the course of his speech, he made some very interesting points and gave a multitude of fun facts about our industry that I didn’t necessarily know before. For starters, he told us that agriculture has been the second most productive sector of the economy since 1980. I also know for a fact that it’s one of the few sectors, if not the only, that can claim a positive international trade balance every year since then.

He also revealed to us that a “farmer,” as defined by the USDA, is anyone who sells more than $1,000 worth of agricultural products a year. In my opinion, that’s pretty generous; I had assumed that the minimum was much higher. Nonetheless, going with that definition, there are approximately 2.3 million farmers in the United States, or less than 1% of the population. Furthermore, of those 2.3 million farmers, 0.1% grows over 75% of what we consume and export. In other words, the majority of your food supply is grown by roughly 230,000 producers. That’s amazing to me.

Secretary Vilsack explained that maintaining the quality of our soil and water is key to our continued success and we cannot ignore the environment. He is working to establish what he called “regulatory certainty” for farmers and landowners across the country. Basically, “regulatory certainty” is a deal between the USDA and participating growers and landowners that they will not be subject to any new regulations and requirements for at least 30 years if they agree to engage in certain conservation efforts. This is a great idea in my opinion because growers and producers will have the peace of mind that their businesses will be in full compliance for at least 30 years and have adequate time to make changes should they have to. As we well know- nothing kills growth and investment like uncertainty.

In addition, he described how conservation as a whole is important to rural America because it creates habitats and ensures the health and wellbeing of those habitats for things like hunting and fishing. Turns out, hunting and fishing in this country is a $145 billion business! That blew my mind as well. I know some guys who take their hunting pretty seriously but $145 billion?? Wow. 

He went on to explain some of the current initiatives to help the growth and sustainment of agriculture. Some of the innovative practices being explored right now include using nanotechnology to develop fiberwood as opposed to fiberglass, which is both sustainable and profitable to rural Americans. Ohio has developed a way to use hog manure as the adhesive in asphalt. How crazy is that? The biofuel industry is also creating demand for more refineries that will create thousands of jobs for rural Americans. The list goes on.

The last thing Secretary Vilsack talked about was that the huge problem facing American agriculture and this country as a whole is the general lack of appreciation for what goes on in rural America and the vital resources it provides. I would agree wholeheartedly. Most people dwelling in urban areas give no consideration to the fact that their food, water, clothing, the wood their houses are made from, the refineries for the gas they put in their cars, and just about anything else essential to daily living originates in a rural environment. This is especially true among young people, some of whom have never even been outside of a city before. Unfortunately, it’s these young people that will eventually have to take over and become the next generation of producers.

Anyway, it was a great conference and certainly an educational one. 

Everybody travel safe and enjoy your holidays. See you in 2013!

- Grace Boatright
National Grange Legislative Director

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