NASHVILLE, Tenn. — He went there. Again.

Just a little over a month after he raised eyebrows by questioning the relevance of America’s rural population, Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, brought the “R” word up again.

This time, it was in front of some 6,000 Farm Bureau members from across the country, gathered for the annual meeting at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

“Now, you have to ask yourself, given the relevance of rural America, the fact that it is the supplier of most of the food that we consume in this country that allows us to be the strongest nation on Earth because we are a food-secure nation, it is rural America and the conservation programs and efforts by American producers that help to guarantee a substantial amount of the water that we consume in cities, in suburbs and around the country,” said Vilsack, who went on to list rural America’s other contributions, including growing feedstock for domestic energy uses and as a job creator.

“The question, given all of that contribution and more from rural America, why is it so difficult for us to get a five-year bill through the Congress? What has happened?”

Vilsack’s comments echoed his comments made in early December in Washington at a Farm Journal forum.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill? It isn’t just the differences of policy,” said Vilsack at the Farm Journal gathering.

“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.”

Vilsack’s remarks then were seen partly as a response from the Obama administration to a rural U.S. population that voted largely Republican in the November 2012 elections and, for the most part, supported Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Sixty-one percent of rural voters supported Romney, according to exit poll results, with less than 40 percent supporting Obama.

Vilsack’s remarks at the forum in Washington also may have been prompted by a personal grudge — Vilsack’s wife, Christie, lost a congressional race to incumbent Republican Peter King in Iowa’s first congressional district.

Among those supporting the campaign to get King out of office was the Humane Society of the United States, which attempted to donate to Vilsack’s campaign, only to have her publicly refuse the donation. However, HSUS went on to spend some $500,000 in attack ads targeting King.

But at the AFBF gathering, speaking to one of the largest and most powerful farm group memberships in the U.S., Vilsack offered an olive branch. The former governor of farm-state Iowa called for the 2012 farm bill to be acted on by Congress as soon as possible and, while reminding the AFBF membership of a political clout he claimed has been lost, offering tips for ways to regain that lost influence.

“Whether we like it or not, I think we have to address and have to acknowledge that the political clout that rural America once had, it doesn’t have as much today. And it’s going to be important and necessary for us to have conversation about how we rebuild that political capacity, and I believe we can,” he said.

Vilsack reemphasized the need for immediate action on the languishing 2012 farm bill and called for elements such as programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers start farming, for programs to expand export and trade opportunities, for support for agricultural research, for assistance and support of specialty crop producers and for support of biofuels and biobased products.

While noting that a new farm bill doesn’t “need as many conservation programs,” he said that conservation programs do need to be flexible to be tailored to fit specific regions and needs.

Vilsack praised the “extraordinary resilience” of American farmers who, faced with catastrophic drought conditions during the 2012 growing season, managed to produce close to a record corn crop, one of the top 10 corn crops in the history of the U.S.

Vilsack also noted that the drought has lingered into 2013, with 597 counties in 14 states already being declared disaster areas due to ongoing drought conditions. Vilsack made the disaster declaration just the week prior to the AFBF meeting.

The drought illustrates the vital role, he said, that a strong safety net played for some, but not all, American farmers.

“Thank heavens we had a strong crop insurance program that provided help and assistance. The unfortunate circumstance is that we didn’t have a similar vehicle to assist our livestock and dairy producers who have been through a very, very difficult time,” he said.

“We need a five-year bill, and we need it now,” he stressed, adding the bill must be headlined with a continued strong safety net. “That five-year bill must start with the commitment that we all agree is necessary, which is that we have a strong safety net built on a strong and viable crop insurance program.”

Vilsack touched on areas where, he said, agriculture and rural populations could start to rebuild the clout he claimed has been lost. Those include support of administration candidates for various Cabinet positions — Vilsack singled out the controversial Chuck Hagel nomination for secretary of defense, but flubbed a bit when he confused John Kerry, nominee for secretary of state, with Jack Lew, the nominee for treasury secretary.

Vilsack also mentioned a priority topic for the AFBF — immigration reform. As Farm Bureau members gathered at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, the AFBF announced Jan. 11 that it was joining the Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group of 10 farm groups.

The AWC announced its proposal to reform the current agricultural guest worker program and gave a no-confidence vote to the current H-2A guest worker program.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us in rural America to embrace diversity, to embrace an immigration policy that makes sense, to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, to embrace the solving of this problem that has vexed us for so long, the creation of a stronger immigration system in this country,” Vilsack said.

However, the secretary of agriculture, who announced just prior to his address in Nashville that he will be staying on in the Obama Cabinet for a second term, may have raised eyebrows with his reference to the HSUS.

“Now, I know there are not too many fans of the Humane Society in this room, but egg producers thought it was in their best interest to avoid 50 different referendums, 50 different sets of rules, so they sat down with folks and they reached common ground,” he said.

“I think the egg producers have the right idea. Now, the issues may be different for different types of producers, but we need to be constructively engaged at all times in conversations.”

Vilsack concluded by expressing optimism that rural America will get back into the spotlight in the coming year and American farmers will get the credit due them from the consuming public.

“I’ve got a feeling we’re beginning to turn the corner. I’ve got a feeling that 2013 is going to be the year where people begin to pay a lot of attention to what takes place n rural America,” he said.

“And I’ve got a feeling that eventually the greatest producers, the greatest farmers in the world are going to get their due. It’s long overdue.”