PORTAGEVILLE — The government needs to work with rural America to create not only more jobs, but better-paying jobs, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Tuesday.
Vilsack spoke at a forum at the MU Delta Center, an agricultural research facility near the Missouri town of Portageville, about 170 miles south of St. Louis in the Bootheel. Many of the 150 or so people in attendance were farmers or worked in agriculture-related jobs in surrounding small towns.
"Sometimes we think any job is something we should focus on," said Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa before joining President Barack Obama's administration. "We sometimes undermarket and undersell rural communities as a place to live and raise families."
The nation's economic downturn has affected communities big and small, but the rural economy has been particularly hard-hit.
A recent study by the MU Rural Policy Research Institute indicated that rural areas are losing jobs at a faster rate than the rest of the nation. Non-metropolitan counties lost 3.4 percent of their jobs for the 12 months ending in January, compared to a 2.8 percent drop in metro counties, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It's even worse in Missouri — the institute said Missouri's 79 non-metro counties lost jobs at an annual rate of nearly 4 percent.
And no place in Missouri has felt the sting more than the Bootheel region of the far southeastern part of the state. While Missouri's poverty rate overall is 11.8 percent, the rate in the Bootheel is 20.4 percent.
Scott Matthews of Sikeston told Vilsack that the estate tax is detrimental to farmers, who are faced with a big tax payment when a farm is passed down after an older member of the family dies. He suggested an estate tax exemption for agricultural land.
"One of the biggest problems we have in small towns is you can't afford to own the farm anymore," Matthews said.
Vilsack, who grew up in Pittsburgh, said he quickly developed an understanding of the kinds of issues farmers face after moving to Iowa, his wife's home state.
"I started doing tax returns for farmers, and I realized how difficult it was," he said.
Vilsack said one priority is to entice more young people to stay on the farm or to get started in farming. He cited statistics indicating that the average farmer is now 57, and the percentage of young people staying in farming is dropping drastically.
He supports a program aimed at helping young farmers get started and stay in business, but acknowledged it can be a tough sell considering the capital investment for land, livestock, supplies and equipment.
"Where does a kid 25 years old get those kind of resources?" he asked.
Responding to a question from an ethanol producer, Vilsack said the president hopes to continue building the biofuels industry.
"We need to look at ways we can encourage the expansion of the biofuels market," he said.
That was welcome news to Gerald Bryan, 66, an agronomy specialist from Jackson. He is hopeful that Obama's push for renewable sources of energy will aid small towns and rural areas.
"Wind, timber — there are a lot of ways timber can be used for energy," Bryan said. "That's going to revitalize these communities. Twenty to 25 jobs at an ethanol plant will make a big impact in a town of 500 or 1,000."
Vilsack said he has spent part of his first 100-plus days on the job "rebranding" the United States Department of Agriculture. He said most people think the department works strictly with farmers and ranchers. In fact, he said, the department is involved in food safety, expanding technology to under-served areas, in promoting American products abroad, even in helping to fight the war on terror by pushing for development of legitimate crops instead of poppy in places around the world.
"Our brand is really that we're an everyday, every-way USDA," Vilsack said.