Rep. Kurt Schrader speaks while U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack looks on at a USDA forum last week. (KEIZERTIMES/Jason Cox)

By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, was in Keizer Friday, Aug. 20, for a rural development forum at the Keizer Civic Center.

Vilsack was in town along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D – Canby, and delivered remarks before the two headed off to the Oregon Food Bank in Portland with Reps. Earl Blumenauer and David Wu, both Democratic congressmen.

The seminars at the morning forum were aimed at issues like rural energy and loan opportunities. Vilsack and Schrader gave brief speeches and the ag secretary took questions.

“Rural Oregon has been in a recession for 20 years,” Schrader said while talking of today’s economic climate. “This is not a new thing for those of us in rural areas.”

Immigration was a key topic of Vilsack’s remarks, as the former Iowa governor and presidential candidate said immigrants play a crucial role in the rural economy – namely in the price of food here.

“We are very, very fortunate consumers. When we go to the grocery and buy food we spend 5 to 10 percent less of our income than any other country,” Vilsack said. “They do it in a way that allows us such a degree of flexibility with our paycheck.”

He said the jobs filled by immigrants – granted, many of whom are here illegally – are the ones few apply for: “Twelve hours a day in the hot sun. … We would have to pay people significantly higher wages.”

The only alternative, without significantly higher food prices, is importing food.

He was also asked about cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, that will help fund childrens’ nutrition.

He said it would help improve food in schools, such as using low-fat milk, and cited pay-go rules in Congress as a reason cuts and other revenue sources needed to be found to offset the increased cost. He also noted cuts to the SNAP program won’t take effect until 2013.

“I wish we didn’t have to make those choices,” Vilsack said, but he said he was concerned a revised bill that didn’t cut into the SNAP program might never make it out of Congress.

He also cited improving opportunities for rural Americans to participate in the global economy via increasing the reach of broadband Internet and finding ways to help young people stay where they grew up.

“The average age of farmers in this country is rapidly increasing,” Vilsack said, saying the average farmer in the United States is 57 years old, up from 55 years old just five years ago, and that 28 percent of farmers are older than 65.

That said, the future may be small: He said that, while large-scale farms are consolidating left and right, tiny operations with less than $10,000 in annual sales are popping up across the country.

The goal, Vilsack said, is that “if you want to pursue the American dream, you don’t have to leave home – or you don’t have to go very far from home.”