White House Rural Forum shines spotlight on progress, issues in rural America

Event held Oct. 5 in HUB-Robeson Center at University Park

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted a White House Rural Forum at Penn State Oct. 5 to to engage stakeholders and address progress and challenges in rural America. Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rural communities across the country have come a long way in many respects since the Great Recession of 2008, but more progress is needed to ensure the future health and vitality of rural America.

That was the general consensus of participants at the White House Rural Forum, hosted by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in the HUB-Robeson Center's Heritage Hall on Oct. 5. The event drew federal and state officials — including Gov. Tom Wolf — policymakers, rural advocates and stakeholders, academic researchers, and representatives of nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations.

The forum included panel and roundtable discussions on economic drivers in rural America, the future of agriculture, rural quality of life, regions in transition, and rural young leaders making a difference. Vilsack also used the occasion to announce $32 million in loans and grants that will promote economic development and provide access to broadband in more than 80 rural American communities.


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack takes time out from the White House Rural Forum Oct. 5 to meet with Ag Advocates, students who represent the College of Agricultural Sciences. Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences / Penn StateCreative Commons


"Reflecting back to 2009, we had an interesting dynamic in rural America," Vilsack said. "The agricultural economy was in pretty good shape, but the overall and rural economies generally were not. So USDA formulated a strategy to rebuild and revitalize rural America."

The challenge, he said, was to identify steps to expand opportunities and encourage young people to stay in their rural communities to live and raise their families. "We needed a complement to production agriculture, and we needed to expand our thinking about rural development," he said.

The strategy USDA adopted had four pillars: Continue to promote agricultural exports; focus on local and regional food systems; provide assistance for farmers to adopt soil and water conservation practices, especially when commodity prices they receive are low; and commit to a bio-based economy.

Vilsack, who chairs the first-ever White House Rural Council, noted that the approach has paid off. Rural unemployment has fallen from more than 10 percent to 6 percent; rural household income climbed 3.4 percent in 2015; poverty and food insecurity fell dramatically; rural populations have begun to rebound; and the share of rural Americans without health insurance is now at an all-time low.

"We've seen a remarkable increase in participation in local and regional food systems selling agricultural products directly to consumers," he said. "It was a $4 billion to $5 billion industry in 2008-2009. It's now a $14 billion industry, and it's projected to grow to $19 billion or $20 billion in the next few years."

The bio-based economy also has grown by bringing manufacturing back to rural areas, where products with plant-based feedstocks — chemicals, textiles, fibers, fuel and energy — can be made. "We have the ability to take ag waste, livestock waste and biomass and turn it into something of greater value," Vilsack said. "This is now a $393 billion industry in the U.S. that supports 4.2 million jobs."

Speaking on rural economic drivers, Penn State's Tom Richard also stressed the importance of the emerging bio-economy. The professor of agricultural and biological engineering pointed out that it all hinges on photosynthesis, a 3 billion-year-old "technology" that takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turns it into materials, energy and food.

"The bio-economy is moving fast," said Richard, who also directs the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment. "We're moving into a broad spectrum of materials that depended on petroleum products for the last 100 years. We're finding new ways to partner food production with biomaterials and energy production. Farmers are switching to cropping systems that are saving money, making them more money and providing additional materials."


Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, speaks on the future of agriculture at the White House Rural Forum, Oct. 5 at the HUB-Robeson Center. Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences / Penn StateCreative Commons


Another opportunity for growth in rural economies is satisfying the increasing demand for nutritious food to sustain a growing world population, according to Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, who spoke about the future of agriculture.

"World population is expected to increase from 7 billion to 10 billion in the next 40 years, requiring at least 70 percent more food, and many people view that as an opportunity for U.S. agriculture," he said. "But it's still going to be a highly competitive marketplace, and we have to use our comparative advantages."

One of those advantages, Roush said, is the United States' strength in research, including the intersection of agricultural and medical research to develop new and improved crops that serve as "nutraceuticals." As an example, he cited research by Jairam Vanamala, associate professor of food science at Penn State, who is studying purple potatoes that have compounds that may help kill colon cancer stem cells and limit the spread of the cancer.

But he emphasized that to enhance consumer health and take advantage of these value-added opportunities, the United States must continue to invest in research and extension. "However, global investment in agricultural research is declining, and there is roughly a 10-year lag time between an agricultural innovation and wide adoption of the new technology," he said.

He also pointed to recent research led by Stephan Goetz, professor of agricultural and regional economics at Penn State, showing that Cooperative Extension and agricultural research translate into higher farm profits, which has helped more than 137,000 U.S. farmers stay in business since 1985. "This study concluded that compared to the costs of other job-creation programs, Extension is a remarkably good investment," Roush said.

In addition, he said, there's a need for education to develop the professionals who will fill new jobs and solve emerging problems. "We need to recruit students from diverse backgrounds and show them that agriculture gives them an opportunity to do well and to do good. For example, ag is so interconnected with some of the most important environmental issues of our time that you can't work in ag without also working on the environment."


Gov. Tom Wolf and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack meet with the media outside the White House Rural Forum at Penn State Oct. 5. Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences / Penn StateCreative Commons


Delivering a closing address to the audience of nearly 200, Wolf said sustaining and revitalizing Pennsylvania's rural areas will require recognizing and building on these communities' strengths. He cited six requirements to support that effort.

"We need to convince people that there are good jobs in rural areas, starting with — but not confined to — agriculture," he said. "We need a good environment, with clean air and water. We need infrastructure. We need access to health care at all stages of life. We need a good educational system — people shouldn't suffer academically for living in rural areas. And we need entertainment," which he said may seem trivial but is important for quality of life.

A particular health-care challenge for rural areas — and for the state as a whole — is the opioid epidemic, according to Wolf. In 2014, he said, about 2,500 Pennsylvanians died of drug overdoses, which is more than died in traffic accidents. Last year, about 3,500 died of overdoses.

The state is taking steps to stem the tide of drug-related deaths. For instance, Wolf noted that Medicaid expansion provided health insurance to 700,000 Pennsylvanians who didn't have it previously, and about 63,000 of those sought treatment for substance abuse in the first few months of coverage.

"Working together with local, state and federal partners, we can fight back against this crisis, and working together we can make rural Pennsylvania the kind of place that beats any others, hands down," he said.

Russell Redding, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture, right, chats with College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Rick Roush between sessions at the White House Rural Forum, Oct. 5. Credit: Michael Houtz, College of Agricultural Sciences / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated October 07, 2016