Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks to reporters during the Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla. This year’s event set several attendance records, attracting nearly 6,200 people, including more than 3,300 corn, sorghum, soybean and wheat growers and more than 1,000 first-time guests.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks to reporters during the Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla. This year’s event set several attendance records, attracting nearly 6,200 people, including more than 3,300 corn, sorghum, soybean and wheat growers and more than 1,000 first-time guests.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is considering a plan to broaden its definition of rural communities to those with less than 50,000 residents.

The move would make larger towns eligible for USDA grants, but won’t exclude smaller ones, said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the Commodity Classic, the annual convention and trade show of the corn, sorghum, soybean and wheat industries.

“It was to provide some degree of consistency between the various programs that we have because often times it is very confusing, particularly for smaller communities, to know whether they qualify for something — some programs for less than 20,000, some for less than 10,000, some for 50,000,” he said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that smaller communities are going to be ignored,” he stressed. “That’s not the case. It is just about creating uniformity of definition that will allow folks to understand what rural means in the context of USDA programs.”

Vilsack said individual communities alone may not have the human or financial capital necessary to fundamentally change their economy, but they can accomplish those goals when they work with others.

“We’ve been encouraging people to think regionally, collaboratively, to utilize and leverage their resources more effectively,” he noted.

He rejected the idea that neighboring small towns often do not agree — from rival high school sports teams to economic development policy — and, in turn, these partnerships are difficult to achieve.

“That’s not the real-life experience that is happening,” he said. “We’ve actually seen a real interest in this, to understand precisely what will move that economy, how do we use our natural resources within the region more effectively and having a strategy, and I think people appreciate that we have these cornerstones.”

The department will be better able to focus its resources, Vilsack said, adding that other agencies have been tasked by President Barack Obama to adopt the USDA’s model and target areas struggling with extreme poverty.

“I don’t think in the real world it’s about a small town being left behind. Actually, in the real world it is about giving that small community an identity within the region and making sure that there are adequate resources going into create economic activity.”

Vilsack recalled his experience as the mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a town with 11,000 workers, but only 8,000 residents.

“I asked the question, how come not all those 3,000 folks coming to work live in Mount Pleasant?” he said. “Somebody said, ‘Well, you know, some people don’t like to live in that big of a city.’ Some people like to live in a town of 1,000 folks.

“As a result of that, I thought, OK, then what I need to do as the mayor of the county-seat town is I need to help those small towns be as strong as they can be, so I picked up the phone and called the mayors of the small communities and said, ‘How can we help? Can we share snow equipment? Can we share tree cutting equipment? Is there a way which we can train some of your people? Are there ways which we could collaborate?’

“The result was a stronger sense of community, so I’m not willing to buy the notion that because you developed a definition that’s designed to simplify things that somehow people are going to be left out. I think actually, to the contrary, our focus is on really providing opportunities to those small communities.”

Vilsack said the USDA already has been working to operate more efficiently. He noted input from more than 1,000 employees from all mission areas was used to create a blueprint of 340 recommendations to boost efficiency, which included restructuring offices and laboratories and offering early retirement to employees.

“We did this before anybody asked us to do it or anybody told us to do it or anybody suggested we should do it,” he said, estimating the plan generated between $700 million and $1 billion in savings. “Honestly, instead of writing letters, it would be helpful if Congress would write a bill and get it passed. It’s in their hands to solve this.”

Spending should be redirected, in particular, to fund research into ways to keep farming amid changing climates, Vilsack said.

“We want to equip producers with information, as good of information as we can possibly get, on how they might go about mitigating or adapting to a changing climate,” he said, noting he recently talked with some growers about areas that no longer are conducive to raising wheat and have transitioned to corn and soybean production.

“We have to be aware of the telltale signs of that happening. We have to be aware of what strategies could be utilized. We have to be aware of what seed technologies could be developed that would enable producers to produce more with less, whether that’s less water, less sunlight, less fertilizer, less chemicals, whatever it is.

“That involves research, and it involves research that recognizes that every part of the country is different. It’s not as if we could set up one research project and do agriculture. Really, you have to establish sort of a regional presence, so there’s an understanding of what that region produces and what the impact and effects of climate change would be.”

Vilsack said these climate-caused production challenges will continue in the future — at the same time that more must be produced to meet increasing global demand.

“It’s a massive effort to recognize that these intense weather patterns are not just an isolated incident,” he said. “We are likely to see a continuing pattern of more intensity.”

But budget constraints will mandate less assistance from the government, Vilsack said.

“Our support structure and system is absolutely going to change whenever the farm bill gets done here,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind the level of support is going to decline. It has to because of the deficit-reduction pressures.”

As Congress is likely to change direct payments dramatically, crop insurance still will be an important safety net, Vilsack said.

“It’s really expensive to put a crop in the ground, and one or two bad years can take a mature operation under and it clearly can take a beginning operation under,” he stressed.

Vilsack added people shouldn’t assume that the new Census of Agriculture, which is conducted by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service every five years, will be completed under the federal budget sequestration. He noted 1.5 million farmers already have responded to the census.

“Anecdotally, I think there’s a lot of interest on the part of young people to participate in one form or another of agriculture,” he said.