Supporting innovation for stronger rural communities

Published 10:27 am Friday, December 20, 2013

by Tom Vilsack

American innovation is one of our most special traditions, fueling our nation to new heights over the course of our history. Innovation is critically important in rural America, where research is helping to grow American agriculture, create new homegrown products, generate advanced renewable energy and more.

Continued research has the capacity to lead the way to economic opportunity and new job creation in rural areas – and USDA has been hard at work to carry out these efforts.  But we need Congress to get its work done and provide a new Farm Bill that recommits our nation to innovation in the years to come.

First and foremost, research and innovation help agricultural production thrive. Scientists at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and outside researchers at Land Grant Universities have made incredible advancements in recent years, helping producers grow more on the same amounts of land. Moreover, since 2009, awards to University researchers by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have resulted in nearly 400 patent applications.

USDA scientists are developing new techniques in the fight against crop pests and diseases, new ways to increase drought resilience, and new understanding of multiple crop and animal varieties to boost production. In the past few years, ARS research has found new ways to cook French fries in a way that reduces the amount of fryer oil the fries absorb. Researchers are working on a fire-retardant material that could better protect houses from wildfire. They’re looking into the potential use of grapefruit essential oil for use as a better tick repellent – and these are just a few good examples.

When all of these benefits come to bear, it’s no surprise that every dollar invested in agricultural research returns $20 to the economy.

Innovation also has positive implications for the creation of advanced, homegrown products and energy in rural America.

Advanced new “biobased” products are being created across the country using homegrown sources from America’s farm fields. More than 3,000 U.S. companies are creating biobased products today and more than 1,000 products bear a new “Certified Biobased Product” label on store shelves.

Researchers at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory are revolutionizing wood products for use in body armor, auto parts and new building materials– and in many cases, these products are stronger and better than what we use today.

Across the nation, advanced biorefineries are scaling up production to provide the renewable fuels of the future – and more than 9,250 farmers and rural businesses have implemented advanced energy efficiency practices to boost their bottom line.

All of this work represents the innovation of the future and holds promise for stronger rural communities. But once again, they rely in large part on a new Farm Bill.

A new Farm Bill would enable public-private funding efforts to expand capacity for agricultural research, returning even more benefits to the economy.

It would support researchers at Land Grant Universities and USDA in their efforts to boost agricultural production. It would strengthen USDA’s BioPreferred Program, and extend the tools folks need in rural America to continue saving energy and creating advanced fuels.

I have no doubt that rural America can continue our nation’s long history of innovation. But to keep the momentum going, we need Congress to get its job done and pass a comprehensive Food, Farm and Jobs Bill without delay.


Tom Vilsack is the United States’ Secretary of Agriculture and oversees the USDA.