Tom Vilsack, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, recently found himself on the train accompanied by another former governor: noted Philadelphia Eagles supporter Ed Rendell.
“That was a long train ride,” he said. “But I feel better this week after Sunday’s game.”
While “The Former Governors on the Train” won’t be Hollywood-ready anytime soon, it was one of a few lighthearted moments the U.S. agriculture secretary shared on Wednesday morning as part of a White House Rural Forum. Held at the HUB-Robeson Center on Penn State’s campus, the summit brought together agricultural leaders from the federal, state and local levels, and covered everything from growing opportunities for farmers and rural communities to easing access to health care and education.
Anecdotes quickly gave way to business, for instance, as Vilsack and other agricultural leaders focused on industry challenges and how rural America is adapting to a changing economy.
The USDA secretary made the morning’s opening statements, providing context to a rapidly expanding industry. While gains are being made, he said, too many rural communities face hurdles that threaten success. One of them, balancing sustainability concerns with the bottom line, stood out.
“The reality is we’re seeing growth, and we’re seeing exciting entrepreneurship and innovation as a result,” he said. “We also are taking a different look at conservation. Our farmers are absolutely the best stewards of land and water and they understand and appreciate the necessity of taking care of our natural resources.
“But they need help,” he added. “Especially at this point at time when prices are lowest.”
In Pennsylvania, agriculture accounts for more than $67 billion in total economic impact. Gov. Tom Wolf, who spoke after Vilsack, outlined a plan for sustaining growth in the state. He pointed to improving infrastructure, education, health care and quality of life.
“Rural life has a lot of resilience, a lot of dynamism,” he said, “and we need to make sure we’re doing a good job of supporting and sustaining that.”
Both Wolf and Vilsack commented on keeping the next generation of agricultural leaders in their communities. Pennsylvania, for instance, boasts the third-largest rural population in the nation, according to Wolf.
“Those are not trivial things,” he said. “People have to feel that the rural area is a place they want to live and want to raise a family, that they aren’t sacrificing anything by living there.”
Vilsack agreed. He lauded the state, which has invested about $16 million in funding to Penn State and more than $5.5 million to the university’s College of Agriculture during Wolf’s first two years as governor.
“We want to continue that commitment to rural America,” Vilsack said.
The forum also included panels on affordable housing, veterans affairs, young farmers and rural policy research.