“There is an unlimited opportunity with agriculture to remake the American economy,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, during a visit to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville last week.
“It’s a great day to be in rural Wisconsin,” he said during the tour of Wisconsin Wednesday (April 18.)
At the university’s Pioneer Farm, Vilsack spoke in a town hall forum with several hundred college and high school students — many wearing their official FFA blue corduroy — along with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. They shared the stage with Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields.
Their backdrop was a spotless red tractor and bleachers full of those blue corduroy-clad students, hoping for a career in agriculture or ag education.
Shields pointed out that Platteville offers students the lowest cost education at a UW school, with classes that are taught by faculty. One of the ways they do that, he said, is to create partnerships with agriculture and industry.
One of the questions from the students was asked by State FFA President, Ethan Giebel, who is a sophomore at UW-Platteville, majoring in ag ed. He noted that it was the 150th anniversary of the federal program to educate our citizens in agriculture.
Giebel asked the secretaries, in light of rising tuition costs and slashed programs, how the federal government will work with schools to help college students.
Duncan said the administration is “trying to walk the walk” with Pell grants and proposed programs to lower interest rates on student loans. He understands budget pressures, and said that universities have to be creative to keep costs down.
“We are proposing a ‘race to the top’ for higher education,” Duncan said.
Vilsack added that broadband systems are needed for rural areas to make distance learning more accessible to all.
“We want to do everything we can to strengthen education in rural communities,” Duncan said.
The so-called “farm bill”, which Vilsack chose to call the “food, farm and jobs bill”, which is being discussed in the U.S. Senate “is a piece of five-year legislation that touches the lives of every single American.”
Part of that bill involves investments in research and some cuts have been proposed. Vilsack said federal authorities have “done a poor job of focusing on why research is important.” There’s a correlation between this research and productivity in agriculture and in the general economy, he added.
“This president believes in education and research — in innovation for the future,” Vilsack said.
At the same time, he added, the federal government “needs to do a better job with what money we have. We have to convince the taxpayers we’re doing everything we can with the money we have.”
Vilsack said that if enough people are “excited, optimistic and hopeful about a future in agriculture, schools will have to respond. We need to talk differently about agriculture.”
Addressing those in the audience who are aiming toward a career in ag education, Duncan said teachers should be “respected as the nation-builders they are” and proposed that teacher salaries be doubled so the career could retain the best and brightest.
“They shouldn’t have to take a vow of poverty to do this work,” he added. “Talent matters tremendously in education as it does in other areas. If we continue to demonize teachers and beat them down, we do our country a great disservice.”
Vilsack said one idea is to create an incentive program to retain teachers in rural areas as an indication of the value they can have, especially in rural areas.
Earlier in the day, Vilsack visited a Madison business that is developing ways to make plastics – like the water bottle he held — out of waste products like corn cobs. That’s the kind of innovation that will present “an enormous economic opportunity.”
“It’s what America does best,” he added.
With exports, an emphasis on local and regional food systems and a bio-based energy program, agriculture is creating the foundation for a much more productive and prosperous farm economy. “It’s an exciting time for agriculture. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
Duncan encouraged the young audience to continue pursuing a career in education. “If you want to serve your country and transform lives I can’t think of a better way to do that than in education,” he said.
Americans, he added, are competing with people in India and China for today’s jobs. “We have to give them the chance to compete.”