WASHINGTON — The efficiency of modern American farming certainly looks like a success story.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday that over the course of his lifetime, the country’s agricultural production has risen 170 percent — all while using 26 percent less land. But the production gains since he was born in 1950 also reduced the number of farmers needed.
“The challenge was that our country didn’t ask the question as we were becoming more efficient in production agriculture: What are we going to do with the 22 million families that are no longer farming?” Vilsack said during an appearance at the National Press Club. “How can we create opportunities for them if they so desire to stay in their small community, in their rural area? How can we create job opportunities for their children and grandchildren?”
Vilsack’s session with reporters focused on expanding economic opportunities in rural America. He talked up the importance of trade exports, renewable energy sources and bio-based products from textiles to cleaning supplies.
A former governor of Iowa, Vilsack is the only member of President Barack Obama’s original Cabinet still in the same role after nearly eight years.
Almost all of the others have left, although Vilsack noted that Shaun Donovan moved from running the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Office of Management and Budget.
As Vilsack wraps up his last few months on the job, he has been touting the administration’s work on rural and agriculture issues and offering thoughts on where the next administration should go.
In particular, he talked about the need to continue supporting renewable fuels and the bio-based industry.
A new report says that industry contributes $393 billion to the economy, he said, adding that it has helped rural areas recover from the Great Recession by supporting 4.2 million jobs.
The administration, he said, has tried to shift rural areas from an extraction economy to something that is more sustainable.
“This is really about taking the natural resource advantage that we have in rural America and expanding its capacity,” he said. “For far too long we relied simply on production agriculture and exports to support the rural economy.”
For example, he pointed to efforts to increase the viability of bio-based aviation fuels. The ethanol industry has run into challenges with how to increase its distribution across the hundreds of thousands of gas pumps in the country, but Vilsack noted that aviation fuel doesn’t face the same hurdle because it’s chiefly distributed at a relatively small number of major airports.
Vilsack also talked about an area that has become a big emphasis at the end this administration’s time in office — tackling opioid addiction that has taken such a toll on rural areas.
Rural areas need more treatment centers and an emphasis on making people more comfortable with asking for help.
“This is a disease. It’s not a character flaw. It’s not like if you just toughen up and exercise free will you can overcome an addiction,” he said. “You have to have help just like if you’re a cancer patient, just like if you have diabetes.”
It’s unclear what the future holds for Vilsack.
He demurred when asked about speculation in Washington that Hillary Clinton might tap him to be her chief of staff if she wins in November.
But he seemed to knock down the idea that he might run for a Senate seat from Iowa.
“I’m an executive,” he said. “I like to make decisions. I like to implement decisions.”