COLUMBUS — Improving the quality of life for rural Americans and ensuring safe, local food in urban areas were at the top of the agenda on Oct. 27, when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with Ohio’s food policy and agriculture leaders at Columbus’ Franklin Park Conservatory.
Flanked by Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs, the two addressed some of the biggest issues facing rural and urban America in a roundtable discussion.
Vilsack said he and President Obama are both very concerned about the rapid population losses in rural America, the number of high school dropouts and lack of income. He estimated the per capita annual income in rural America to be $11,000 less than in other places. And, “there’s as many high school dropouts in the workforce in rural America, as there are college graduates.”
Vilsack said less than one percent of the country’s population farms, and only one-tenth of a percent produce a whopping 85 percent of the nation’s food.
“It’s a relatively small number of people who are producing an enormous amount of opportunity and they need to be recognized and appreciated,” he said.
A member of the Ohio Environmental Council asked him what the U.S. Department of Agriculture could do to “be responsive toward this movement” toward a better understanding of the impact of modern agriculture and livestock production on local economies, the environment and public health.
But he backed up just a bit, to talk about all of agriculture and where this “movement” actually fits.
According to the USDA definition, there are 2.2 million farms in the United States, Vilsack said. Of those, about 1.3 million produce ag commodities in their backyard, a garden or an orchard and typically sell $1,000-$2,000 of product a year, often at their local farmers market.
In the middle are about 600,000 farmers who generally live and work on a farm and sell less than $250,000 of product a year. This year, even after an expected net farm increase of about 24 percent, this middle group will net about $3,400.
In the third group are the commercial producers — the least populated but the ones responsible for producing 85 percent of the Nation’s food.
“The food that they (commercial farmers) produce is produced in a way that is responding to a market and it’s a market that, candidly, is a reaction to our lifestyle,” he said. The majority of us still want food that is quick to produce, quick to put on the table.”
Acknowledging the conflicts that sometimes exist between different types of production, he said USDA is committed to finding ways they can co-exist.
“We love them all,” he said, commenting on the diversity in agricultural production, and its benefits.
But most of his discussion did center on local food initiatives and advancing local food availability.
Several on the roundtable told him of the challenges they still face in getting local food to their communities: Convenience stores that outnumber grocery stores, difficulty of transporting and processing large quantities, and educating consumers about healthy choices.
He discussed the work of various legislative efforts in Ohio, including Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland’s Food Policy Advisory Council and the Ohio Neighborhood Harvest Initiative
The Advisory Council works to eliminate food deserts and food insecurity and the Harvest Initiative strives to improve access to Ohio-grown products and ensure people in every neighborhood have access to affordable, nutritious food.
Boggs said the state has made a lot of progress in advancing local foods, and still has some work ahead, especially with children, and the elderly.
“There’s a whole new level of collaboration and cooperation between agencies and nonprofits,” said Shoshanah Inwood, coordinator of the state’s farm-to-school initiative, which works to forge connections between school students and food production.
As one on the roundtable put it, “local food is really rocking in Ohio, quite frankly.”
Although many questioned the Secretary about more funding for specific programs, he cautioned that spending will be tight.
“There isn’t going to be a whole lot of new money,” he said. “The question is how do we use the money that we have more effectively.”
Part of the answer may be through a regional focus, he explained, rather than individual communities within the region. The communities would still benefit, but through a regional effort.