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Published July 16, 2012, 09:58 AM

Helping, not hindering rural U.S.

As I travel around the country, I frequently hear from farmers, ranchers and producers that the federal government needs to let them make the right business decisions for their operation.

By: Tom Vilsack, Agweek

WASHINGTON — As I travel around the country, I frequently hear from farmers, ranchers and producers that the federal government needs to let them make the right business decisions for their operation.

President Obama and I know they’re right. In the past three years, the president has developed a clear record for listening to folks in rural America and being sure that federal agencies do what’s right by our producers.

That’s why it’s troubling to me that many are still misrepresenting the facts. The truth is the Obama administration has worked to follow laws that protect people and the environment, while ensuring that the government doesn’t hinder our farmers and ranchers.

Dust regulations

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did examine current regulations on dust. But that’s because EPA is required by law to do so every five years — no matter who’s in charge. In June, EPA announced that there would be no change to the dust regulations that have been in place since 1987 and were last updated under the previous administration.

‘Spy planes’

As for the latest issue of EPA “spy planes:” In fact, it’s been nearly a decade since EPA began using manned aerial flights to verify compliance with environmental laws in impaired watersheds. These flights started under the Bush administration, and they always have taken place with the full knowledge of state governments. Planes help save taxpayer dollars by conducting inspections more efficiently than by car. They help ensure compliance with existing law, and they’re nothing new.

The administration also has strived to be proactive in listening to producers. When the U.S. Department of Labor proposed a rule regarding child farm labor, they heard from folks across the country and took the comment process seriously.

Ultimately, the decision to withdraw the rule — including provisions to define the “parental exemption” — was made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rule on small family- owned farms. It won’t be reconsidered throughout the duration of the Obama administration.

The administration also is conducting a more comprehensive review of regulations to identify which ones, including those that have been accumulated over time under many administrations, are holding businesses back and hampering growth.

Meanwhile, we’ve taken historic action to support rural America — and today, agriculture and rural communities are leading the way back from recession.

Last year, U.S. farm sector income reached a nominal record of $98.1 billion and record agricultural exports supported nearly a $43 billion trade surplus and 1.15 million American jobs. The president also signed new free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, which will bring more than $2.3 billion per year in additional trade benefits.

We’ve pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy approach, which has helped to reduce America’s imports of foreign oil to just 45 percent in 2011 from 60.3 percent in 2005, while supporting the companies and researchers who are developing the next generation of renewable fuels.

USDA has helped provide more than 6,250 community facilities — libraries, clinics, police and fire stations — to help folks in rural communities. We’ve helped more than 50,000 rural small businesses grow through grants or loans. And we’ve provided a record level of farm loans, helping more than 128,000 farmers and ranchers access credit since 2009.

Today, as rural America leads the way back from recession, I’m proud of these efforts and I’m proud to lead a USDA that’s providing record amounts of service to Americans, even at a time when we all agree tough calls and budget cutbacks are necessary.

Through all of these results we’ve achieved, the president and I know there’s still progress to be made — and we are committed to seeing that the federal government continues this work, not hinders it.

Editor’s Note: Vilsack is secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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