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Blight, Addiction And Recruitment Among Issues Facing Local Agriculture Community

Christophe Ena
AP Images

As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for all eight years of the Obama administration, Tom Vilsack has closely monitored changes in farming and horticulture. During a stump for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Vilsack sits down with Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer about the biggest challenges facing rural growing communities in the U.S. and here in Pennsylvania.

The agriculture industry, Vilsack explains, is currently beset by many issues, including recruitment of young farmers, low prices leading to low revenues, blight, pests and drug addiction in rural counties.

As far as work from the federal level, Vilsack says President Obama has requested additional funding for the Department of Agriculture, money which will be going towards research against diseases and pests ravishing crops.

“At the end of the day, it’s better if we try to prevent that problem [blight and pests] to begin with,” Vilsack said. “We can do that with research.”

Blight and pest control are particularly hard to deal with, says Vilsack, as they vary wildly by region. The kinds of diseases affecting Utah crops are not the same as the ones in Pennsylvania or Georgia. With the increased research, he believes the USDA will be more effective in combating the problem.

However, a different, very human problem is also harming the nation’s farmers: drug addiction. In this region, heroin and opioid abuse are most prevalent.

Vilsack’s own mother suffered from an addiction to alcohol, an experience he draws on when creating programs to combat addiction in his work at the USDA.

He says his mother had access to programs to assist in her recovery, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Such programs are difficult to find or form in isolated farm lands.

“My mom dealt with this in terms of addiction, and I can tell you, she had a lot of will power, she had a lot of faith, she could not do this alone, she needed help,” He said. “In many rural areas, that help is not available today, we need to make sure in the future that it is available.”

Looking ahead, Vilsack has thrown his support behind Hillary Clinton’s presidency, speaking well of many of her policies aimed at helping America’s farms. He described Hillary as “tough and tested,” citing her experience as a major selling point.

“I want a president who is practical but progressive,” he said. “I think great ideas and big ideas are wonderful to talk about, but at the end of the day, if you’re gonna make people’s lives better, you actually have to get things done.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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