WILMINGTON — The role government can play to strengthen America’s rural areas was stressed during US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s visit to Wilmington College Thursday.
Vilsack toured the college’s newly upgraded and expanded Center for the Sciences and Agriculture, and the facility’s agriculture and science classrooms and laboratories. The renovation and expansion project was funded by a $19.7 million rural development, low-interest, 32-year loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
In remarks prior to introducing Vilsack, Wilmington College President Jim Reynolds said without the USDA’s help, the extensive renovations and new wing would not have been possible. During the eight years Vilsack has been the agriculture secretary under President Obama, the USDA has awarded $6.9 billion in loans and grants for education and healthcare facilities in rural regions.
One intended effect of those USDA infrastructure investments, said Vilsack, is to stem the rural brain drain such that youth who live in small towns have options, and “don’t necessarily have to go to a big city to run a business and make a difference.”
In part, he attributed the brain drain to a lack of collective foresight while the number of U.S. farmers dropped from 25 million to 2.3 million.
“We didn’t stop and think, ‘Golly, where are those [rural] people going to go?’ We forced them, in essence by not giving them opportunity, we forced them to leave their small town and go to a big city,” the secretary said.
During public comment, a questioner suggested part of the challenge in dealing with rural brain drain involves creating a risk-taking culture among rural residents, who the audience member said sometimes are resistant to change.
Vilsack replied he thinks “you can’t force people to be bold; you got to show them a way.”
And one thing that can be done in that regard, he said, is to make the case that change is constant and cannot be avoided.
“So, the question becomes either allow change to manage you — as many communities have seen the slow deterioration of their community because of allowing change to manage them — or you can manage the change,” said Vilsack.
He was encouraging in his thoughts about the small city of Wilmington located in a largely rural county.
“There’s no limitation in what can be done in this small town. None. You have all of the elements here,” the secretary remarked.
At an earlier juncture, Vilsack said it is “really phenomenal” that nearly a quarter of WC students are agriculture students.
Earlier this year, Vilsack announced that 11 high-poverty counties in Ohio had been selected to join USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Opportunity and Growth Initiative.
The initiative aims at delivering sustainable results by building partnerships with community organizations, businesses, foundations, universities, faith-based and other groups to help challenged communities shape a future based on local assets and regional strengths, stated a media advisory from the USDA.
After his visit to the college, Vilsack attended a gathering of local Democrats at the General Denver Hotel.
Reach Gary Huffenberger at 937-556-5768 or on Twitter @GHuffenberger.