Are America's farms facing a crisis?
Addressing the USDA's annual Outlook Forum -- which looks at the year ahead in agriculture -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday, "I want to express concern about the 2.2 million farmers and 50 million people who live in rural America."
He noted that rural America has fewer college graduates and an average income $11,000 per-capita less than the national average.
Rural America is also older than urban or suburban communities; this year's agricultural census
puts the average age of farmers at 57. And as those farmers retire or move on to other jobs, who will replace them is an open question.
"These statistics on rural America are a wake-up call," said Vilsack.
And rural America is facing more than educational and economic challenges.
A report issued
Wednesday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute ranked U.S. counties in terms of healthiness, looking at factors such as lifespan, access to doctors, and environment.
When comparing the 50 healthiest and the 50 least healthy areas, researchers found that 84 percent of the counties ranked as least healthy were rural counties.
And despite being farm country, another factor impacting rural life may well be the accessibility to food.
"It's difficult to address the economic or health issues of this country if (we don't address that) in some rural and inner cities areas of this country, there are no grocery stores," Vilsack said.
In response to the crisis, Vilsack touted efforts at expanding broadband access in rural areas, which has lagged behind suburban and urban areas, and also called for an extension of a tax credit on biodiesel, which was enacted in 2004 and expired at the end of last year.
But, he also noted that with fewer midsize farms operating and more farmers holding down second jobs, the most important factor may be in finding ways to encourage young people to take up farming.