Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says farm groups need to put aside issues about the size of farms and concentrate on getting the message out about the impact U.S. agriculture has on all segments of the U.S. economy.

Vilsack also urged Republican members of Congress to give some thought to the impact of the draconian reductions they’re seeking in spending on farm payments and other discretionary programs before “mistakes are made.”

The question of whether USDA has been focusing too much time addressing small farmer problems is one that has dogged the Agriculture Department for months. The issue was the subject of the first question Vilsack received when he met with reporters following his presentation at the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Fla.

“To me, this is not about pitting one size farmer against another size,” he said. “We need to talk about all the farmers, and the reason we need to talk about all the farmers is that they represent less than 1 percent of the population. We need to convey a message to the other 99 percent that farming is important regardless of size or type of operation.”

The wide range of size in farming operations is one reason U.S. consumers enjoy such a diversity of foods. “It allows us to have the safest and most affordable supply of food anywhere in the world and perhaps, as (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman (Frank) Lucas said, at any time in our history,” he noted.

“Secondly, all these folks help to generate economic activity that provides some degree of vitality to rural communities. About 56 percent of rural counties lost population in the 2000 Census. I haven’t seen the recent Census data, but I suspect it reflects this trend as well.”

That’s why it’s important for agriculture to speak “with a unified voice in farming and not pit ourselves against each other.”

Vilsack defended USDA against claims it has been spending too much time addressing issues of local food and organic farmers, citing efforts to expand crop insurance opportunities, making sure the disaster program is working, promoting exports, creating research centers for biofuel feedstocks, for initial bio-refinery investments and providing support for producers.

“There’s a lot going on, and it’s difficult to talk about any one thing,” he said. “You have to kind of talk about all of them. And sometimes when you talk about all of them, folks think you’re not talking about their thing.”

Vilsack delivered the keynote address to an audience of about 4,500 farmers and commodity group representatives during the Commodity Classic’s general session. He followed Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.