U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called for a rural revival as he announced $97 million in programs to support the continued development of farmers markets, farm to school efforts and rural economies while addressing the 113th National Farmers Union Convention March 16 in Wichita, Kansas. He also vowed to expand risk management tools for specialty crops and limited-resource farmers.

“Increasing market opportunities for local food producers is a sound investment in America’s rural economies, while also increasing access to healthy food for our nation’s families,” Vilsack told the more than 470 attendees, including 24 representing Wisconsin Farmers Union.

“There are over 400 school systems in this country that are purchasing locally, and this is a tremendous opportunity to help rebuild the rural economy,” said Vilsack. He noted that the 2012 Census of Agriculture indicated more than 160,000 farmers and ranchers nationwide are tapping into growing consumer demand by selling their products locally.

“Consumer demand for local, healthy food is skyrocketing in schools, hospitals and wholesalers. These grant opportunities allow farmers and ranchers to meet this demand and feed our nation’s kids,” he said.

Vilsack pointed out that the farm to school movement and other innovative approaches to directly marketing fresh healthy food to consumers are a “vibrant growth area that is drawing young people back to rural communities, generating jobs and improving quality of life in rural communities.”

For the nation’s specialty crop farmers, beginning farmers and limited-resource producers, the Secretary also announced changes in the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program to help increase access to much-needed resources. “The Farm Bill is focused on making sure the next generation of farmers gets the help they need,” he said.

NFU President Roger Johnson praised the additional funds, noting, “The Secretary has been a very good friend to family farmers and ranchers, and these new investments in rural America will pay off in spades.”

Vilsack reaffirmed his support for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). “I’m for RFS,” he said. “It’s taken a long time in part because the market is fluctuating so dramatically.”

“We need to make sure Congress doesn’t do anything to damage [RFS] or repeal it or make it difficult to use,” he added. “We need to be advocates, spokespeople for this industry. We need to go out and tell folks this is the right thing to do for family farms, for the environment, for our rural economies.”

Vilsack urged the crowd to continue to educate the public about the potential of renewable fuels and the need to wean the nation from foreign oil imports. He pointed to areas of the economy, like the aviation industry and military, which are converting to renewable fuels.
In closing, Sec. Vilsack called for agricultural community to join together in their efforts. “Every minute that agriculture takes fighting within agriculture is another minute we’re not using to advocate about ag with the rest of the country,” he said.

Wisconsin Farmers Union is a member-driven organization committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement. Learn more at www.wisconsinfarmersunion.com.