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Rural forum focuses on improvements, future needs

Vilsack and stakeholder leaders focus on strengths and needs to keep rural America on path to economic security.

At the White House Rural Forum held Wednesday at Pennsylvania State University, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shared that significant gains have been made across rural America.

Vilsack, who is chair of the first-ever White House Rural Council, convened the forum with rural policy, business and nonprofit leaders to discuss pertinent issues facing rural communities, including opportunities for economic growth and strategies for improving health care and housing.

Vilsack noted that rural household income climbed 3.4% in 2015, overall poverty and food insecurity fell dramatically and the share of rural Americans without health insurance is now at an all-time low.

He said rural America is no longer seeing the “population drain” that also brought with it job loss rates of more than 100,000 per year. Rather, rural populations have begun to rebound in the last couple of years, and non-metro areas have added more than 250,000 jobs since 2014.

The White House Rural Council, established by President Barack Obama in 2011, coordinates the Administration's efforts in rural America by streamlining and improving the effectiveness of federal programs, engaging stakeholders on priority issues and coordinating private-sector partnerships to create economic opportunity and improve quality of life.

While in office, Vilsack has been an advocate of connecting different stakeholders, helping make resources go further and leveraging strengths. In an effort to stretch funding dollars, he said the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be making an announcement later this week regarding a new initiative – Uplift America – that will allow the private sector to act as a guarantor of USDA loans.

At the Rural Forum, Vilsack also announced that more than $3 billion has been invested since 2014 into rural infrastructure projects through a public/private partnership with Capitol Peak Asset Management and CoBank, a national cooperative bank and member of the Farm Credit System. Since USDA initiated the partnership, the private-sector funding has helped finance more than 400 projects in the power, water, communications and community facilities industries.

Finally, Vilsack announced the continuation of the Rural Integration Models for Parents & Children to Thrive (Rural IMPACT) demonstration project that was launched last year. Rural IMPACT helps communities adopt a two-generation approach to addressing the needs of vulnerable children and their parents. Its goal is to increase parents' employment and education and improve the health and well-being of their children and families.

Future farmer struggles

In one panel of the forum, a central theme was allowing new and beginning farmers to enter and be successful in farming.

Sophie Ackoff, national field director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, said at a time when only 6% of farmers are under the age of 35, it is critical to create pathways to help these young farmers succeed. She noted that in the next 20 years, two-thirds of the nation’s farmland will be changing hands.

“If we want a food system where independent family farms can thrive, we need to make sure it stays in the hands of farmers, as land is expensive,” she said.

The coalition surveyed 1,000 young farmers and found that 78% come from non-farming families. “This new generation getting started often faces lack of access to capital and is often saddled with loan debt,” Ackoff said. They also tend to move to rural areas, often facing isolating and sometimes being looked down upon by other local farmers for using different practices.

She noted that a rising barrier causing new farmers to leave or not even get started is student loan debt. The House has introduced the Young Farmers Success Act, which allows farming to be included as a public service loan forgiveness career.

Ackoff said she and her boyfriend are hindered by his $30,000 in student loan debt, which is “standing in the way of starting our farm business.”

Economic boost

At the forum, Vilsack announced $32 million in loans and grants that will promote economic development and provide access to broadband in more than 80 rural American communities.

Examples of funded projects include:

  • Jackson Energy Cooperative Corp. in McKee, Ky., will receive a $1 million Rural Economic Development loan to help the Kentucky Highlands Real Estate Corp. retrofit an industrial building. The newly updated building, located in Rockcastle County, will be leased to a private contractor that processes medical records for the Veterans Administration. This project is expected to create 190 jobs.
  • Pine Telephone Co. in Broken Bow, Okla., will receive a $3 million Community Connect grant to build a state-of-the-art fiber network serving the Choctaw Nation Tribal Jurisdiction. The money will also support staff for a community center where individuals without computers can access the internet.
  • The city of Anamoose, N.D., will receive a $218,462 Rural Business Development Grant to renovate a former bank building. The refurbished building will be leased to a new restaurant that will feature an evening and weekend menu using locally grown produce and meats.
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