Former Secretaries of Ag discuss how to strengthen rural America amid COVID

Former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture have some ideas to move rural America forward during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a virtual town hall, former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture are invited to talk about the programs facing rural America during the coronavirus pandemic. More importantly, what is next so those communities not just survive but thrive once it is over. Former Secretary Ann Veneman notes, “We can get young people, if we have the right tools and the technology, to learn virtually. We can help people learn skills through vocational education... the potential for rural America, not just in agriculture but expanding its base of opportunity, is really quite great.”

The National Association of Counties, National Cooperative Business Association, and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership put former Secretaries Veneman and Tom Vilsack on the forefront of the discussion. Vilsack served during the recession of 2009 and Veneman served as Secretary following 9/11, where vulnerabilities were identified in the food supply chain.

According to Veneman, “Today, we really have to focus on not so much the worry about the safety of the food but the safety of the workers, who are all called essential workers, working in the food supply, whether it’s in the meat packing plants which have been really hard hit by this... the farm workers themselves... So, I think rural America in terms of how it’s being affected by this disease also needs to look at the people themselves that are involved in rural America because so many of these processing plants, packing plants are in rural America.’

Veneman and Vilsack both talked about the importance of addressing climate change issues and increasing broadband in rural America. “I think what’s different about this circumstance and the challenge climate change presents is it also presents an economic imperative,” Vilsack notes. “It’s not just about making access because everybody’s zip code should matter in terms of access; now, it’s because we need rural America to be engaged in adapting and mitigating climate. We need rural America to create opportunities where every child can learn. We need rural America engaged in this effort.”

While both agree the federal government needs to formulate a specific game plan for moving forward, Vilsack says that governors should be able to do more. “Within states there also needs to be the ability of governors to draw on non-profits, on land grant universities, on the folks who can make things happen in rural places, so that they also are rowing in the same direction.”