Vilsack: New USDA investments in broadband, small businesses should help small town America

By Christopher Leonard, AP
Thursday, June 3, 2010

Vilsack: USDA investment should help rural America

HILLSBORO, Mo. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday that crop subsidies aren’t going to be enough to help revitalize rural economies and he expects the federal government to do to more to help small town America.

Vilsack laid out the Obama Administration’s plans at a summit on the rural economy, saying he aims to create jobs in rural areas by pushing for new biofuels plants, installing high speed Internet connections and bolstering tourism.

“It’s a chance for us to give America a wake-up call about the challenges faced by rural America,” he said.

The problems facing small town America have festered for decades, as the average age of farmers has risen, rural populations have fallen and jobs have become more scarce. But panelists at the summit said there is now a window of opportunity to turn things around.

The Obama administration supports boosting the required biofuels production from 15 billion gallons a year to 36 billion gallons by 2022, a change Vilsack said could create 807,000 new jobs in rural communities, including work building and operating the plants. At the same time, Vilsack said high speed Internet is breaking down the geographic barriers that often kept high paying jobs out of small towns.

Don Larson, a county commissioner from Brookings County in South Dakota, said the changes are already slowing population losses in his state. If given room to grow, new industries could help staunch the flow of young residents moving to big cities.

“I’m certain we’ll see repopulation of our rural communities, and it’s going to be technology based,” Larson said.

Thursday’s summit, held at a community college in Hillsboro, Mo., about 40 miles south of St. Louis, was the capstone of Vilsack’s 22-state tour of rural communities. He said he heard consistent complaints in towns from Alaska to Missouri. While big farmers were making a good living — supported in part by generous crop subsidies — smaller growers were barely hanging on, he said.

Vilsack said about half of all farmers work more than 200 days a year on non-farm jobs.

“The way that they basically keep their head above water is the spouse works, or the farmer works. So there is now a need for a strong rural economy that is a companion — that overlays — production agriculture,” Vilsack said in an interview. “If folks in town do well, creating opportunity, then farmers can stay on their land”

The USDA plans to build on the $28 billion it has spent on rural infrastructure projects as part of the 2009 stimulus act, he said. The agency announced Thursday it would seek applicants for $45.1 million in loans for small businesses. It also announced $22.5 million in grants will be given to people in 45 states for business development.

James Young, mayor of Philadelphia, Miss., said simple investments can change the future of small communities.

Young tries to recruit new employers to his 8,000-person town, and he said having high speed Internet access is a must in landing jobs. Without better infrastructure, rural youngsters will continue to leave for bigger cities, he said.

“The thought process is to survive,” Young said. “But every now and then, we need a little help.”

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