By MARY CLARE JALONICK
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has some harsh words for rural America: It's "becoming less and less relevant," he says.
A month after an election that Democrats won even as rural parts of the country voted overwhelmingly Republican, the former Democratic governor of Iowa told farm belt leaders this past week that he's frustrated with their internecine squabbles and says they need to be more strategic in picking their political fights.
"It's time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America," Vilsack said in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal. "It's time for a different thought process here, in my view."
He said rural America's biggest assets -- the food supply, recreational areas and energy, for example -- can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the U.S. population shifts more to cities, their suburbs and exurbs.
"Why is it that we don't have a farm bill?" said Vilsack. "It isn't just the differences of policy. It's the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it."
For the first time in recent memory, farm-state lawmakers were not able to push a farm bill through Congress in an election year, evidence of lost clout in farm states.
The Agriculture Department says about 50 percent of rural counties have lost population in the past four years and poverty rates are higher there than in metropolitan areas, despite the booming agricultural economy.
Exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and television networks found that rural voters accounted for just 14 percent of the turnout in last month's election, with 61 percent of them supporting Republican Mitt Romney and 37 percent backing President Barack Obama. Two-thirds of those rural voters said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.
Vilsack criticized farmers who have embraced wedge issues such as regulation, citing the uproar over the idea that the Environmental Protection Agency was going to start regulating farm dust after the Obama administration said repeatedly it had no so such intention.
In his Washington speech, he also cited criticism of a proposed Labor Department regulation, later dropped, that was intended to keep younger children away from the most dangerous farm jobs, and criticism of egg producers for dealing with the Humane Society on increasing the space that hens have in their coops. Livestock producers fearing they will be the next target of animal rights advocates have tried to undo that agreement.
"We need a proactive message, not a reactive message," Vilsack said. "How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don't have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now."
John Weber, a pork producer in Dysart, Iowa, said Friday that farmers have to defend their industries against policies they see as unfair. He said there is great concern among pork producers that animal welfare groups are using unfair tactics and may hurt their business.
"Our role is to defend our producers and our industry in what we feel are issues important to us," he said.
Weber agreed, though, that rural America is declining in influence. He said he is concerned that there are not enough lawmakers from rural areas and complained that Congress doesn't understand farm issues. He added that the farm industry needs to communicate better with consumers.
"There's a huge communication gap" between farmers and the food-eating public, he said.
Vilsack, who has made the revitalization of rural America a priority, encouraged farmers to embrace new kinds of markets, work to promote global exports and replace a "preservation mindset with a growth mindset." He said they also need to embrace diversity because it is an issue important to young people who are leaving rural areas.
"We've got something to market here," he said. "We've got something to be proactive about. Let's spend our time and our resources and our energy doing that and I think if we do we're going to have a lot of young people who want to be part of that future."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.