Over the course of the past year as United States Secretary of Agriculture I've had the opportunity to lead President Obama's rural tour, visiting dozens of communities in 20 states -- often alongside other cabinet members -- in an effort to learn about what we can do as a nation to help strengthen rural America.
What I saw was a silent crisis in rural America. Too many of our small towns are struggling. Although they are some of the hardest working folks I know, rural Americans earn, on average, $11,000 less than their urban counterparts each year. And they are more likely to live in poverty.
More rural Americans are over the age of 65 and few have graduated college. More than half of America's rural counties are losing population and with it, political representation.
My travel on the rural tour also reminded me of the strength and resilience of the American agricultural economy. American agriculture supports 1 in 12 jobs in America, a critical contribution to the strength and prosperity of the country. And American farmers are the most productive in the world -- providing food, feed and fiber for our entire nation. This productivity has given Americans access to a cheap food supply and provides us with 10 to 15 percent more discretionary income than much of the rest of the world.
But here too the dynamics are changing. In the past 40 years, the United States lost more than a million farmers and ranchers. Many of our farmers are aging. Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming, and more and more of our farmers are looking elsewhere for their primary source of income.
To keep farmers on the farm we must maintain a strong farm safety net, but we will also have to build a thriving companion economy to compliment production agriculture in rural America. The improved safety net must pursue new approaches that create more good-paying jobs in rural America, in addition to the time-tested programs that support our abundant agricultural system.
At each stop on the tour I met with hundreds of Americans to hear their stories, thoughts, and concerns. And I got a sense about each community's vision for its future.
What I heard is that the elements of this new 21st century rural economy to compliment production agriculture are already in place. There is more potential for economic growth in rural American than at any time in decades. We just need to embrace new strategies to help create a thriving rural economy.
We are working at the President's direction to build a framework of a new rural economy, built on a set of pillars which combine the successful strategies of today and the compelling opportunities of tomorrow:
- We must develop new markets to provide new income opportunities for American producers by promoting exports abroad, by supporting domestic local and regional food systems that keep wealth in rural communities, and by facilitating the creation of ecosystems markets that reward landowners for taking care of the environment;
- We must create new opportunities for prosperity and small business growth with investments into rural broadband access;
- We must create green jobs that can't be exported by promoting the production of renewable energy in communities across the country;
- We must stimulate rural economies by encouraging natural resource restoration and conservation and by promoting recreational uses like hunting, fishing and other activities that create jobs;
- And we must continue to strengthen farm income by investing in critical research to ensure our farmers remain world leaders in providing a reliable, cheap, safe and abundant food supply.
The rest of the Obama administration is also engaged in revitalizing rural communities: working to help the next generation of rural Americans prepare for a brighter future by investing in teachers and supporting rural colleges; updating rural infrastructure like roads, police stations, libraries and community centers; and improving rural health care to create jobs and ensure a quality-of-life attracts Americans looking for a good home for their family.
This week, USDA will be hosting a national rural summit in Hillsboro, Missouri, to discuss the key priorities and policies necessary to make these changes a reality and put rural America on track to a more prosperous future. Farmers, ranchers, and foresters from around the country, as well as policymakers from all levels of government and community leaders will have an opportunity to contribute to the conversation as a capstone to the Rural Tour I led throughout the country last year.
I have no doubt that this event will continue to yield the sorts of creative ideas we will need to pursue these approaches to revitalizing rural America. Through joint efforts by the federal government, state and local partners, non-profits, and private enterprise, we will build a stronger rural economy for the 21st century so that communities across rural America remain the best places in this nation to live, work, and raise a family.