Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry regarding the impact of renewable energy in rural America. "Madam Chairwoman and Members of the Committee, I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss economic development and the impact of renewable energy in America's rural communities.
"I want to start by emphasizing that a vibrant American economy depends on a prosperous rural America. Rural America supplies food for our country and the world. Agriculture is also a critical driver of our economy, helping support one in 12 American jobs. Last year, exports of American agricultural goods reached a new record, helping drive record farm income and supporting more than 1 million jobs.
"Moreover, in recent years, rural communities have experienced strong job growth, particularly in the manufacturing and clean energy sectors, so that rural unemployment rates are dropping faster than in other parts of the country. Despite this job growth, rural communities are still facing significant challenges, including outmigration, lower incomes, higher poverty rates and access to capital.
"President Obama and I care deeply about rural communities. Over the last three years, we've made historic investments in rural America designed to drive job growth, improve housing and infrastructure, and form the foundation of a rural economy that is built to last.
"We want to build a better future for the men and women who live, work and raise their families in rural communities. Together, we can help rural America build upon the successes of the last few years by realizing the significant economic opportunities, not only in agriculture, but in other sectors such as manufacturing, services and clean energy.
"In the last farm bill, this committee wisely focused on energy policy. Renewable energy – including biofuels, biomass, wind and solar – are an important source of jobs and economic growth in rural communities across the country. Biofuels and biomass in particular offer exciting new opportunities for entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers and growers.
"The president has shared his vision for a new era in American energy, with an economy built to last fueled by homegrown and alternative energy sources designed and produced by American workers. This is why clean and renewable energy has been a high priority for the Obama Administration, as well as for Congress on a bipartisan basis, for many years.
"USDA has an important role to play in helping to build a cleaner, more secure, more sustainable domestic energy sector for future generations. We help agricultural producers and rural small businesses build renewable energy systems and make energy efficiency improvements. At the same time, we are encouraging a nationwide, advanced biofuels economy.
"USDA supports growers and landowners producing energy feedstocks; works with scientists on research and development; helps the entrepreneurs in the private sector advance production of advanced biofuels; and even supports infrastructure like flex-fuel pumps to help consumers purchase biofuels.
"We have also established a partnership with the U.S. Navy and Department of Energy to boost the domestic production of aviation biofuels for use by the military.
"In addition to renewable energy, the production of bioproducts – using agricultural materials to create polymers, chemicals and consumer products – is a growing opportunity for rural economies. A bioproducts sector marries two of the most important economic engines for rural America: agriculture and manufacturing. Today, there are more than 3,100 companies across the country producing more than 25,000 bio-based products.
"USDA has made good progress in stimulating the growth of bio-based product markets through our 'BioPreferred' program and research investments, but I urge the Committee to consider how our current programs could better align with this important opportunity for agriculture and rural manufacturing.
"Continued efforts to support sustainable economic growth in rural America should also recognize that successful rural economic development often occurs on a regional basis. In addition to providing direct economic benefits, regional collaboration allows rural communities to capitalize on economies of scale in infrastructure and public services, to encourage the development of specialization in industrial sectors to make them more competitive, and to locate facilities and services where they provide the greatest benefit at the lowest cost.
"As you consider the next farm bill, I would like to suggest you consider two key themes: streamlining and flexibility. Over the course of many years, this committee and Congress have provided USDA with more than 40 programs in rural development, many of which have overlapping authorities and goals. Together, I hope we can look at streamlining USDA's grant and loan authority to reduce the number of programs, while maintaining the flexibility to continue to serve rural communities and businesses in an effective and comprehensive way.
"In particular, I would like to suggest more flexibility to support regional development. While we have looked to our current authorities for every opportunity to partner with communities that are working regionally, more could be done. In the budget released this week, we repeated our call to target resources for projects or communities that are part of a regional strategy. I urge the committee to consider efforts to encourage communities to take on a little more organizational work on the front end to yield better and more lasting results.
"Thank you for this opportunity to speak briefly about what USDA has accomplished, in particular in renewable energy and regional economic development. I look forward to working with you as you craft the next farm bill on how you can streamline our authorities, provide flexibility so that USDA can effectively deliver the programs, and continue to focus on emerging opportunities such as renewable energy and bioproducts."