"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."