When the top cheerleader for rural America has some harsh words for the people he represents, it might be time to take notice.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a dire warning to the 51 million farmers, ranchers and other residents inhabiting rural America before a farm group in Washington last month. His message: Rural Americans are becoming less relevant in the country's increasingly urban landscape and unless they find a way to reverse the trend, their voice will continue to fall on deaf ears in Washington and around the world.

"Unless we respond and react, the capacity of rural America and its power and its reach will continue to decline," Vilsack said. "Rural America with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we better recognize that, and we had better begin to reverse it."

In the past four years, he said, more than 50% of rural counties have seen their population decline.

Vilsack pointed to rural America's diminishing impact as a reason Congress was unable to pass a farm bill in 2012 — during an election year. More than 80% of lawmakers are not representing rural areas, making it an uphill battle for those outside of urban areas to be heard in Washington by senators and representatives who may not fully understand or appreciate the role played by agriculture in the U.S.

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