Earlier this week, I had the privilege to join members and guests of the Farm Credit Council at their annual meeting in San Diego. It was a great opportunity to see some old friends and make new ones.

But it was also a time for me to continue to share the story of how critically important rural America is to our nation and why we can’t afford to allow rural areas to be left behind in the nation’s forward march to progress.

In meetings before large national farm and business groups, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack often speaks about how agriculture continues to change and innovate. He notes how it has transformed from a two-dimensional approach that used to focus on production and livestock, to a multidimensional approach that now also emphasizes specialty crops and niche market opportunities, exports, developing fuel and energy crops through a bio-based economy, supporting local and regional food systems, and committing to conservation and outdoor recreational opportunities.

All of these components represent an unprecedented opportunity to economically revolutionize America’s rural towns, and communities.  For example, USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative is supporting the expansion of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture by linking local production with local consumers like schools and other institutional purchasers. Our efforts have helped to increase the number of farmers’ markets to 7,800 nationwide, a 67 percent increase since 2008.

Or consider the bio-based economy for fuel. We are working with federal Departments of Defense,Energy, and the NAVY, to create “drop in biofuels” to reduce reliance on imported oil and reduce fuel resupply lines in the event of a national emergency.  In addition to transportation fuel, USDA is supporting America’s bio-based industry through its BioPreferred program, which has nearly 9,000 products that can be purchased though federal agency procurement. We are also encouraging private sector partners to join this effort.  USDA’s Biopreferred website identifies 3,000 companies that are now producing nearly 25,000 bio-based products.

Given the growing importance of rural America to the nation’s overall economic health, it makes sense to ensure that our rural places don’t get left behind.

About 98 percent of Americans live off the farm and more than 80 percent live in metro areas. Unfortunately, this means that the concerns –and the opportunities–associated with rural America are not being heard as well as they should be. My goal at the Farm Credit Council and in other meetings I attend is to engage my fellow citizens in proactive conversations of how TOGETHER we can support the innovative and inspiring work in rural towns and cities and by doing so, keep America strong and prosperous for years to come.