HILLSBORO — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday the Obama administration is making new investments in rural America that should help reverse the economic decline seen in many small towns.
Vilsack laid out the administration's plan at a summit on rural economic issues in Hillsboro, about 40 miles south of St. Louis. New investments in broadband Internet, biofuel plants and small-scale farming will help create jobs in rural areas, Vilsack said.
Although rural communities have lost jobs and residents for decades, they have a chance to regain them by producing fuel from crops and establishing Internet connections to other areas, he said. Vilsack told about 400 people who attended the gathering at Jefferson College that new attention — and investment — would flow from Washington.
"It's a chance for us to give America a wake-up call about the challenges faced by rural America," he said.
After touring rural areas in 22 states, Vilsack said he consistently heard complaints that small towns are losing population because they can't sustain economic growth. He said that hurts city dwellers because it threatens their food supply.
The Agriculture Department has been providing farm subsidies, but now it plans to go beyond that, Vilsack said. Before the next farm bill is negotiated, the agency plans to push for biofuel production through mandates for alternative fuels, with the goal of producing 36 billion gallons by 2022, rather than the 15 billion produced today, he said.
The agency will also add to the $26 billion it has spent on rural infrastructure projects as part of the 2009 stimulus act, he said. The focus will be on connecting rural areas with high-speed Internet, so companies and workers can overcome the distance that keeps small towns isolated.
James Young, mayor of Philadelphia, Miss., said he came to the summit to advertise his town and find new opportunities for development. He said laying down new infrastructure, such as broadband Internet access, was critical for towns like his to land new jobs.
Without them, rural youngsters will continue leaving for bigger cities, he said.
"The thought process is to survive," Young said. "But every now and then, we need a little help."