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Budget challenges and preserving ag

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I don't need to tell the American people that in 2009, America struggled through the most serious econ-omic reces-sion since the Great Depres-sion. Families were forced to make difficult decisions. And more and more Ameri-cans had to rely on USDA to help put food on the table.

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The challenges facing rural communities for decades have grown more acute, which is why the Obama administration is committed to new approaches to strengthen rural America. Rural Americans earn less than their urban counterparts, and are more likely to live in poverty. More rural Americans are over the age of 65, they have completed fewer years of school, and more than half of America's rural counties are losing population.

This year, President Obama took steps to bring us back from the brink of a depression and grow the economy again. But with the unsustainable debt accumulated over the past decade, it's time to get our fiscal house in order.

Our proposed FY 2011 budget is a reflection of that reality, essentially freezing funding for discretionary programs at the FY 2010 level. However, limits we placed on select programs and efforts to eliminate earmarks and one-time funding actually result in a bottom line reduction to our discretionary budget authority of over $1 billion.

This budget uses taxpayer dollars wisely, taking common-sense steps that many families and small businesses have been forced to take with their own budgets. We are investing in American agriculture and the American people without leaving them a mountain of debt.

We care deeply about farm-ers and ranchers and have worked hard to maintain the agricultural safety net, while instituting some targeted reductions in farm program payments. Just as impor-tantly, this budget pursues priorities that will have the greatest impact in our efforts to address the challenges facing rural America and lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity.

This budget will assist rural communities create prosper-ity so they are self-sustaining, economically thriving, and growing in population. We have already taken important steps in this effort. With help from the Recovery Act, we supported farmers and ranch-ers and helped rural busines-ses create jobs. We made in-vestments in broadband, re-newable energy, hospitals, waterand waste water sys-tems, and other critical infra-structure that will serve as a lasting foundation to ensure the long-term economic health of families in Rural America. This budget in-cludes almost $26 billion to build on that down payment and focuses on new opportun-ities presented by producing renewable energy, developing local and regional food syst-ems, capitalizing on environ-mental markets and genera-ting green jobs through recre-ation and natural resource restoration, conservation, and management.

We will promote the production of food, feed, fiber, and fuel, as well as increased exports of food and agricultural products, as we work to strengthen the agricultural economy for farmers and ranchers. America's farmers and ranchers are the most productive and efficient in the world, and this budget maintains the policies that help maintain our nation's food security. This budget increases our funding for export promotion as part of President Obama's National Export Initiative and provides more support than ever before for competitive research, which can lead to gains in agricultural productivity.

We will ensure that all of America's children have ac-cess to safe, nutritious, and balanced meals. The budget fully funds the expected re-quirements for the depart-ment's three major nutrition assistance programs -- WIC, the National School Lunch Program, and SNAP -- and proposes $10 billion over 10 years to strengthen the Child Nutrition and WIC programs. It also invests over $1 billion for efforts to reduce food-borne illnesses from USDA-inspected food products.

We will ensure our national forests and private working lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to climate change, while enhancing our water resources. This budget will enroll more than 300 million acres into Farm Bill conservation programs, an increase of 10 percent over 2010. It will support our efforts to strategically target high priority watersheds. And it focuses efforts on forest restoration and hazardous fuels reduction in the wildland-urban interface, where they will offer job-creation opportunities and reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires.

There is no doubt that these tough times call for shared sacrifice. The American people have tightened their belts and we have done so as well. We made tough decisions, but this budget reflects our values, and common sense solutions to the problems we face. It makes critical investments in the American people and in the agricultural economy to set us on a path to prosperity as we move forward in the 21st century.

Tom Vilsack is secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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