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Views of rural America, U.S. agriculture range from less relevant to resurgent

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• Starting with the bad news, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in December that rural America is “becoming less and less relevant,” as evidenced by the fact, as of mid-December anyway, we still didn’t have a farm bill.

• Before you become too depressed at Vilsack’s dismal message, consider a starkly different one from Christopher Dutton, a professor at Vermont Technical College, who writes on the Huffington Post website that his state is experiencing a “renaissance” in agriculture, and he expects the resurgence to spread throughout rural America.

Two starkly different views of rural America and U.S. agriculture emerged in recent weeks — one hopeful and optimistic, the other discouraging and maybe even a bit cynical.

Starting with the bad news, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in December that rural America is “becoming less and less relevant,” as evidenced by the fact, as of mid-December anyway, we still didn’t have a farm bill.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” asked Vilsack in a meeting with Iowa farm belt leaders. “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

The Secretary continued, in a somewhat scolding fashion, to say that it was “time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” and that a different thought process was needed.

Too often, said Vilsack, farmers have embraced wedge issues such as regulation rather than presenting a united front and a positive message.

“We need a proactive message, not a reactive message,” he said. “How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message?

“We’ve got something to market here. We’ve got something to be proactive about. Let’s spend our time and our resources and our energy doing that, and I think if we do, we’re going to have a lot of young people who want to be part of that future.”

I’ll have to respectfully disagree with the Secretary that irrelevance has very much if anything to do with the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill in a timely manner. I’m more in agreement with the assessment of Jim Novak, Auburn University Extension economist, who said recently at a crop consultants’ meeting that it’s all politics and budget-driven.

Democrats and Republicans alike are taking hard positions, says Novak, and they’re refusing to compromise on much of anything these days, including the farm bill. “The sides have built trenches and they’re shooting at one another,” he says.

I especially like Novak’s assessment that the “old dead philosophers have won the fight.”

“It’s all about Keynesian stimulus programs or Austrian free market — one side or the other,” he said.

But before you become too depressed at Vilsack’s dismal message, consider a starkly different one from Christopher Dutton, a professor at Vermont Technical College, who writes on the Huffington Post website that his state is experiencing a “renaissance” in agriculture, and he expects the resurgence to spread throughout rural America.

Dutton has seen it first-hand, as record-high U.S. agricultural exports and a booming world population — as well as growing interest in the farm-to-table and sustainable living movements — are helping to create significant demand for skilled workers in every area of agriculture.

“From diversified farming and food production, to agricultural waste and energy production, opportunities as varied as working for a multi-national agriculture company or starting your own ag-related business abound,” says the professor.

“In the eight years I've been teaching ag courses, I've never seen greater demand for my graduating students entering the workforce, or the range of entrepreneurial ventures they are launching.”

Beyond the anecdotal evidence, there are also these factors to consider, says Dutton: 1) USDA has projected a need for more than 54,000 new undergraduate annually to work in agriculture through 2015 — and even more beyond; 2) The United Nations has projected the world population to grow to more than nine billion people by 2050; and 3) U.S. agricultural exports are expected to hit $143 billion in 2013 according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

“Whether you’re a college student or an adult looking to make a mid-career change, agriculture is a great profession to explore,” says Dutton.

“My students who don’t have family farms to go back to have on average seven to 10 jobs to choose from — before graduation. For every job that comes their way, there are just as many viable entrepreneurial opportunities.”

The federal government, he says, sees Vermont as a microcosm of this growing economic sector and has turned to Vermont Tech to develop a program for training students and mid-career workers eager to fill the new jobs that are being created by a changing industry and booming worldwide demand.

And while schools such as his can provide classroom training, Dutton says hands-on experience is even more valuable.

“Experience on many different types of farms, interacting with food outlets and other ag-related businesses, is invaluable in helping to learn about how the agricultural economy works. I often say to my students, “the farm is the professor,” he says.

Secretary Vilsack might very well have a valid point somewhere in his argument of irrelevance, but Professor Dutton’s more optimistic view certainly is more palatable.

phollis@farmpress.com

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