"We need a proactive message, not a reactive message," Vilsack said. "How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don't have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now."
John Weber, a pork producer in Dysart, Iowa, said Friday that farmers have to defend their industries against policies they see as unfair. He said there is great concern among pork producers that animal welfare groups are using unfair tactics and may hurt their business.
"Our role is to defend our producers and our industry in what we feel are issues important to us," he said.
Weber agreed, though, that rural America is declining in influence. He said he is concerned that there are not enough lawmakers from rural areas and complained that Congress doesn't understand farm issues. He added that the farm industry needs to communicate better with consumers.
"There's a huge communication gap" between farmers and the food-eating public, he said.
Vilsack, who has made the revitalization of rural America a priority, encouraged farmers to embrace new kinds of markets, work to promote global exports and replace a "preservation mindset with a growth mindset." He said they also need to embrace diversity because it is an issue important to young people who are leaving rural areas.
"We've got something to market here," he said. "We've got something to be proactive about. Let's spend our time and our resources and our energy doing that and I think if we do we're going to have a lot of young people who want to be part of that future."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick