Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo., recently for a rural community forum to discuss USDA plans to revitalize and rebuild rural America.

“President Obama and I are committed to investing in and revitalizing rural communities, in part because they play an important role in our national and international food delivery system,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack spoke of providing more off-farm job opportunities as one target program for agriculture. According to USDA, most farm families work 200 days a year off the farm.

Another concern for Vilsack is the aging farm population. The average age of the American farmer has gone from 55 to 57 in just five years, the largest increase in history.

Young persons are leaving the farm seeking other opportunities in urban environments. There has been a 20 percent decrease in farmers under 25 years of age.

USDA nutrition programs, which already use over 60 percent of USDA distribution funds, have been increased nationwide, according to Vilsack. A four-person household will receive an $80 increase monthly and there will be no limit for jobless adults.

USDA’s rural development programs will fund 12 water and wastewater projects with a cost of $42 million in loans and grants.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is using recovery act funds for watershed rehabilitation programs.

USDA’s Forest Service in Missouri has been allocated over $2 million, the bulk of which will be used for the Mark Twain National Forest project. These funds are expected to create 25 jobs in 29 counties.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency has assisted 75 Missouri farmers with $4 million in loans. Of these, 34 were beginning farmers and 14 were socially disadvantaged.

Vilsack said USDA will attempt to entice higher paying jobs into rural communities. The advantages mentioned were time savings because commuting is reduced and traffic is negligible. Another big advantage are lower crime rates, making rural communities better places to raise children.

Another focus of USDA concerns the increased marketing of U.S. agriculture products for export. It is hoped increased demand for U.S. agricultural commodities in export markets will improve agriculture income in rural areas.

Vilsack said USDA will work on improving agriculture opportunities in Asia. The idea is to shift Asian farming away from opium poppies to food crops. USDA believes this will improve economic opportunity and diversify businesses in rural Asia. The programs are designed to provide more profitable enterprises to give more people a vested interest in their economies and thereby reduce terrorist activity.

Another major focus of the current administration is to increase biofuel use and improve the associated technology with improved funding for cellulosic ethanol and biodiesel, according to Vilsack. The most favored proposal is increasing the alcohol content of gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent.

Vilsack says cellulosic ethanol should be available in 2016. He said that the biofuel industry will remain volatile for the near future. Increasing biofuel production is seen as a way to increase rural economic opportunities and jobs as well as having environmental benefit.

The secretary said the reaction of China and other countries banning imports of American pork products is obviously misguided, noting that swine flu is not transmitted in pork products and no influenza infections have been found in any U.S. swine herds.

Vilsack said confidence in American agricultural products must be maintained around the world. Vilsack will work with importing countries to explain the safety of GMOs (genetically engineered organisms). The advantages of GMO products outweigh any risk, according to USDA policy and acceptance by other nations will potentially increase exports, he said.

Vilsack addressed a farmer’s question on the disparity between Corn Belt states and Southern states in regard to crop insurance. The farmer said that Southern farmers pay higher premiums but have fewer losses in both number of claims and the cost of those claims. Vilsack said he intends to investigate the fair distribution of federal crop insurance coverage.

Another concern is the antiquated USDA computer system. Vilsack the department intends to apply for additional tax dollars to upgrade the system.

Many farmers in attendance told Vilsack they were not in favor of cap and trade climate change regulation proposals. Vilsack pointed out that farms are estimated to produce 7 percent to 10 percent of greenhouse gases, yet mitigate 20 percent to 23 percent. He said it might be possible for farmers to sell their 15 percent credit to industries that have a negative green house gas deficit.

Ray Nabors spent 25 years at the Delta Center in Portageville, working in agricultural Extension and research. Today he reports on markets for the Heartland Ag Network.