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America’s Agricultural Success: A Well-Kept Secret?

Bakersfield, Calif.
Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

Amid all the worry about how long it will take the economic recovery to kick into high gear, there’s a little-noticed sector that’s doing very well, thank you: American agriculture. Overlooked by many of us in the news media, probably in part because we spend most of our time in big cities, farm sector earnings hit a record last year, with farm income rising just above $100 billion.

I sat down with U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack a few days ago to get an update on what his huge (90,000 employees) department is up to, and came away surprised by the successes in the American agri-economy. Much of this is being driven by farm exports, which reached a record high last year — and as Vilsack, a former Governor of Iowa, likes to point out, helped support 1.15 million jobs here in the United States. These exports contributed to an overall U.S. trade surplus that also hit a record in 2011. (Did you know that every $1 billion in overseas trade generates 8,400 jobs in this country?)

The question is WHY is agriculture doing so well? Vilsack, whose grandfather owned a farm, says back in 1975, the most productive farmers planted an average of 12,000 seeds per acre. Today, thanks to science, it’s closer to 30,000. After information technology, agriculture is the second most productive sector of the economy. Farm unemployment is dropping at a faster rate than the rest of the job specialties because of this, and because of what Vilsack calls “an extraordinary investment in infrastructure.” He describes an extensive supply chain including storage, transport, and equipment manufacturing. Farmers are buying lots of new machinery, like large tractors with sophisticated GPS systems, leading to new hiring on the part of companies like John Deere, which recently added 250 people at a plant in Ankeny, Iowa, that manufactures cotton pickers.

There are many more facets to the success story, but two bright spots in particular stand out at this wide-ranging federal department: housing and food assistance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture helped arrange 456,000 home loans over the past three years, during perhaps the country’s worst housing crisis ever. The homes they helped find mortgage backing for are principally in rural areas. Secretary Vilsack explained “it’s our mission to do this; we’ve been working hard to improve the quality of life for people living in rural areas.” Under that same heading, he threw in the assistance the department has provided for school construction, for small business (almost 50,000 loans) and for the expansion of broadband in rural areas — some 80,000 miles-worth.

Finally, food stamps: a sensitive topic on the presidential campaign trail this year, as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has referred to President Obama as “the food stamp president.” Run by USDA, its real name is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Vilsack reminded me that while there was a substantial increase in demand for SNAP benefits in the wake of the economic downturn, only 8 percent of recipients are on welfare. More than 50 percent are children and the elderly; the rest are people with disabilities and working men and women who don’t earn enough to afford to keep food on the table for their families. “Payment accuracy” is up to 96 percent, in other words, less fraud, in the wake of stepped-up enforcement and investigations. Most impressive: in 2010, SNAP helped lift 3.9 million Americans — including 1.7 million children — out of poverty.

There’s always something to criticize in government; after all, it’s made up of people, and people make mistakes. But there are also some positive stories these days in the agricultural arena that deserve to be heard.

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