By TOM VILSACK
For the Capital Press
Last week, the U.S. Senate acted in bipartisan spirit to approve the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act -- a balanced, comprehensive bill that will drive continued growth in rural America. The House of Representatives now has another important opportunity to stand with rural America and pass its version of a bill.
People often call this the Farm Bill -- but it's much more than that. This is a conservation bill. It's a trade promotion bill. It's an innovation bill. It's a jobs bill.
And it's a bill that will help continue a tremendous increase in markets for locally grown foods. This includes creating more farmers' markets, building additional regional food hubs and strengthening farm-to-institution programs.
In recent years, USDA has carried out a very successful Farmers' Market Promotion Program that has increased the number of farmers' markets by 67 percent since 2008. The Senate bill expands these efforts through its Farmers' Market and Local Food Promotion Program.
This would continue to help producers sell their product directly to consumers through farmers' markets, but it would also help farmers who are ready to scale up and sell to local grocery stores or other institutions. Regional food hubs, which connect farmers to these larger-volume markets, would have a new tool to expand and grow.
Passage of a Food, Farm and Jobs Bill would help farmers develop new value-added products for local or regional sale, creating new income opportunities in rural America. In recent years, the Value-Added Producer Grant Program has already helped more than 285 projects directly related to local markets for agriculture.
It would continue efforts to provide healthful, locally grown food in schools -- building on our work to serve 3,200 schools and 2 million students through USDA Farm-to-School projects across the country.
And it would provide investments in the infrastructure that locally oriented producers can use to grow a better crop. This includes support for new cold storage facilities, hoop houses to extend the growing season, and access to credit to start or expand an operation.
The Food, Farm and Jobs Bill isn't just needed by America's farmers and ranchers -- it's important for all of us who enjoy fresh, local foods at a farmers' market. It's important to ensure our nation's youngsters have access to healthy, fresh foods. It's important to help create new economic opportunity in rural America.
These are all good reasons why Congress must get a Food, Farm and Jobs Bill passed as swiftly as possible.
Tom Vilsack is secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.