Watch video | Vilsack: Democrats struggle to speak to rural voters

Rural America’s vote is “still up for grabs” and worth the attention of both presidential candidates, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said on Tuesday morning.

Vilsack shared his thoughts on the first presidential debate of 2016 during an interview for the Washington Post’s “The Daily 202.” Vilsack — whom Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton considered tabbing as her running mate — said it was an overall “very good night” for Clinton and a mixed showing for Republican candidate Donald Trump.

Looking ahead toward the Nov. 8 vote, though, Vilsack said both candidates should focus on rural America.

The total population in non-metropolitan counties is about 46 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics from July 2015. Rural residents account for about 14 percent of all U.S. residents but are spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area.

“Rural America is a special place,” Vilsack said while speaking to the Washington Post’s James Hohmann.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal was among the few agriculture-related issues addressed during the presidential debate, which aired Monday night.

Also known as the TPP, the trade deal seeks to improve trade relations between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries including Australia, Japan and Vietnam. The agriculture industry has widely supported the deal, which would cut or reduce more than 18,000 different taxes on U.S. products abroad.

But Trump and Clinton have each criticized the TPP and the deal’s future is now in doubt. Trump argues the trade deal is “an attack on American business.” Clinton says the deal isn’t up to the high standards she sets on free trade agreements.

Vilsack said he still hopes the deal will make it through Congress and eventually pass.

“The game’s not over until it’s over,” Vilsack said. “Agriculture clearly benefits from trade agreements — any state that grows anything can benefit.”

Since 2010, the United States has exported more than $165 billion worth of staple U.S. agricultural products to the 11 TPP countries, a Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting analysis found. Roughly 20 percent of agriculture income and 30 percent of agriculture sales are tied to trade, Vilsack said.

“In agriculture, every farmer understands trade,” Vilsack said. “They understand the significant of it to their bottom line.”

Other issues important to rural voters include the Renewable Fuel Standard, childcare, expanded broadband and better access to mental health resources. But toward the top of the list should be immigration reform, Vilsack said.

“The next president and the next Congress have got to get this done,” Vilsack said. “There are acres not being planted or acres not being harvested because the workforce is unstable.”

Farmers employed about 140,000 temporary foreign agricultural H-2A workers in 2015, federal data shows. Those workers are sometimes delayed while trying to enter the country because of processing holdups. In April and May, the American Farm Bureau Federation announced some of its members weren’t able to care for crops or harvest on time because their guest workers never arrived.

Farmers and farm labor contractors in need of labor also hire workers with undocumented status. Some estimates project that as much as 60 percent of farmworkers lack legal documentation.

Vilsack was elected governor of Iowa in 1998 and re-elected to a second term in 2002. As the USDA’s top official, he is the only person appointed in the Obama administration cabinet that has served all eight years.

For more highlights from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s interview with the Washington Post, click here.

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