Outlining the Pillars of Food Policy for a Revitalized Rural Economy

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By Lisa Bard, Contributing Editor

Speaking specifically to those Millennials in the audience, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack charged them to “organize, educate, collaborate and advocate” in order to help heal and repair our country’s divide and to bond over the common issues of food and agriculture.

Vilsack was the keynote speaker at the Ag Innovation Summit 2.0 at Colorado State University on Sept. 6. Speaking initially on the pillars of food policy, Vilsack let the audience know very quickly that his address would touch on more than just policy. However, he began by talking about the importance of rural America, and acknowledged that it has not received much-needed attention from the government for many, many years.

As ag secretary, he focused on creating a new rural economy that was less of an extraction economy and more of a sustainable one. “An extraction economy takes something from the land and rural places, and sends it someplace else where value is added, jobs are created and opportunity exists,” he said. “As we became more and more efficient in agriculture, we failed to make the transition from an extraction economy to a sustainable one.”

As those in agriculture know, there were 25 million farmers in 1959. Today, there are only 2 million farmers who produce more than $1,000 in farm income; traditional farmers/ranchers number only 1 million; and significant operations producing 85 percent of the food and fiber number only 250,000. This is with a population of 325 million people.

“How do we make it so people who no longer farm can and will stay in rural America so that it remains alive and viable?” he asked. “We need to create a new rural economy with the four pillars, all of which involve innovation.”


The first pillar is production agriculture comprised of commercial-size operations that remain strong and viable. These operations are incredibly productive and are incredibly good at what they do, producing significantly more with significantly less.

The reality is the United States cannot consume all we produce, so exports become vital to rural America’s future. We have to embrace trade – free trade, fair trade. Regardless what you call it, trade is vital to rural America. (Trade also supports about 1 million jobs off farm.)

However, Vilsack said, there must be more because some people don’t want to be a commercial-size operation. They want to service a local market, and be small and competitive in a market that doesn’t solely reward size and technology.

“Small operators need other, value-added market opportunities in order to remain viable and competitive, so we need to create alternative markets that aren’t necessarily controlled by the global marketing system,” Vilsack said.

Go local

The second pillar is local or regional food systems that allow small producers to negotiate directly with their customers. Farmers markets, local institutional purchasers, restaurants, etc., are all examples of local or regional food systems.


The third pillar is conservation, which opens up tremendous opportunities because it includes ecosystem markets and recreation. Innovation will be critically important to conserving and preserving the resources we have so that we can maintain agriculture. This means we have to invest in conservation. Water is an excellent example.

“In the West, we will need to save, conserve or reuse a tremendous amount of water in the next 15-20 years or we may have the difficult choice between expanding cities or maintaining an agricultural economy – we may not have water for both,” Vilsack explained.

It’s not easy for farmers to bear the cost of conservation as there is no one to shift the expense to. In typical business models, the cost of regulation is passed on to the consumer. In a commodity-based business, there is no one to pass the increased cost of conservation or regulation on to.

“The way the producer can make it work is if we incentivize and partner with them so that it can make sense financially,” Vilsack said. “We need to figure out a way to get programs less fiscally constrained and get corporations, non-profits and interested individuals involved so that there’s an incentive to conserve.

“The third pillar of this revitalized rural economy involves the establishment of ecosystem markets,” he continued. “The ability to quantify, verify, certify and measure a conservation result would allow the producer to market that result to someone who needs it to satisfy regulation or corporate responsibility requirements.

“Because you can measure, quantify and verify a conservation result, you can sell it and create an ecosystem market. There are literally hundreds of these small markets, but they need to expand significantly. We need to figure out policy that will allow that type of financial innovation to take place.”


The final pillar is to bring manufacturing back to rural areas, which can be accomplished by embracing a plant-based manufacturing strategy. This means producing every manufacturing piece – every material, fiber, fabric, fuel, food, energy source and fuel source – from what we grow and what we raise.

Vilsack cited the innovation, science and technology that are turning manure from dairies and feedlots into a multitude of chemicals, materials, fabrics and fibers.

“There’s a company doing this – taking what can be a serious on-farm problem and turning it into a profitable business,” he said.

Come together

To do all of that, however, we need to have consensus, which our country currently does not have.

“I am deeply concerned about the divisions in our country that are taking place today. The inability to have dialogue and the inability to have consensus is a problem,” Vilsack said.

Who will get our country back on track? Who will rediscover a way to a community of shared interests? What issue or set of issues could we galvanize around to start the process of reconnecting with one another? How do we show folks how it can get done, knowing that there will be strong resistance because we are so divided? According to Vilsack, young people need to be engaged in order to make these changes and bring our country back together.

“I believe in young people because they don’t know enough to know they can’t do something,” he said. “I believe the college students of this country is precisely the group to be galvanized and inspired to begin the process of healing and showing us the way to rediscover a sense of community. Young people have the power to educate, organize, collaborate and advocate.”

The question is, what issue or set of issues can we agree need to be addressed? Vilsack suggested that food and agriculture have potential for consensus because food is a powerful force that brings people together and lends itself to a sense of community.

The issues of food access, food waste, responsible marketing and access to research for innovation are all areas they can organize, educate, collaborate and advocate on.

Let’s start with food access. Twenty-three million Americans don’t have access to a decent grocery store. “Why can’t we begin the process of creatively figuring out the policies and investments that would encourage the private sector to meet that need? There can be public-private partnerships that will help increase food access,” Vilsack suggested.

What about food waste? About one-third of the world’s food is wasted. In the United States, non-consumption is the cause. In other countries, it’s due to spoilage before distribution. Vilsack suggested we can do things locally to reduce food waste, which will, in turn, have positive impacts globally and in our own pocketbooks.

Responsible marketing is another issue of common concern. Young people can demand more of producers when they market their products and not to be misled by irresponsible marketing.

“Truthfulness in labeling is important. Let’s be honest and don’t disparage other products in order to elevate your product,” Vilsack advised.

Another issue is publicly vs. privately funded research in the agriculture sector. Today, 64 percent of research is privately funded, while only 36 percent is publically funded – a big shift from the 50-50 percent of years ago. Public resources for research are being reduced in the name of fiscal responsibility, but the impact is that the public sector no longer has access to research and innovation to improve their products. Vilsack suggested getting back to a better balance of public vs. private research in agriculture.

“These are issues we can all work on together to show how we reach consensus. We can get back to a sense of community, where different ideas can be discussed and debated,  a consensus reached and action plans created, all of which this country needs. Then it becomes easier to create new innovations and policy to support production agriculture, local and regional food systems, conservation and plant-based conservation,” Vilsack concluded.