By TOM VILSACK
For the Capital Press
President Barack Obama and I recently announced our proposal for USDA's budget next year. We are focused on building a strong American economy that will maintain a basic promise for the middle class: If you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, and put a little away for retirement.
USDA plays a key role in that effort, supporting farmers, ranchers and growers enjoying record farm income, providing nutrition assistance to families struggling to get by, and creating jobs and building a foundation for future economic growth, especially in rural America. The USDA budget will help us to continue this progress, supporting robust farm income and good jobs in rural communities.
The budget maintains a strong safety net for farmers and ranchers. It would increase our investments in research and development to improve agricultural productivity. It supports robust markets for farm products at home and abroad, so we can continue to drive producer incomes with historic agricultural exports. And we'll continue to partner with farmers working to conserve our natural resources: air, water and soil.
At the same time, we cannot afford to let our foot off the gas from investments that are helping create jobs in rural America. This budget will continue to help rural families buy or refinance a home; and it will help communities invest in schools, hospitals, libraries, water systems and fire and police stations. It will provide grants and loans to thousands of small rural business looking to expand, grow and hire. And it promotes production of renewable energy to create good, middle class jobs.
In the past years, USDA has seen our operating budget cut by $3 billion, or 12 percent. This came on top of a $4 billion contribution to help pay down the debt. To manage these reductions while preserving success in the countryside, we've had to take a close look at the way we do business with less money, a smaller staff, and more complex programs. We're making some changes -- but they shouldn't affect the success of farmers, ranchers, small businesses and the families that live, work and make their homes in rural America.
At the end of the day, we want farmers working hard to make a good living, and we want to offer good, middle class jobs for the 50 million people who call rural America home. The 2013 budget will allow us to keep that commitment.
Tom Vilsack is secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.