U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discusses USDA’s courseWritten by Jennifer Womack
“Farming is the most difficult job, occupation, calling, of any in the country,” said Vilsack, noting that agriculturalists have very little influence over their input costs or the prices they receive for their products. “You have no control over the weather,” he added.
Vilsack’s involvement in agriculture dates back to his early career preparing tax returns for the agricultural community in a small Iowa town. He joked that ag folks would bring him a grocery bag full of receipts and want their return prepared for under $25.
“In the 1980s our practice changed from preparing tax returns to representing farmers,” said Vilsack of his work helping farmers keep their property during a time period that has become known as the Farm Crisis.
“It was during that course of work that I met a number of people that I represented and I realized and appreciated that it wasn’t just about a way of life. It wasn’t just about a business. It wasn’t just about land. It wasn’t just about a way to make a buck. It was truly a value system, an important value system that is at the core of what it means to be from this country.”
Vilsack said, “It was a belief that with hard work, playing by the rules, raising your kids right, committing yourself to the community, that you could make a good living and that you could be proud of the work you do by feeding not just your family, but the country’s families and the world’s families.”
It was during that time that Vilsack said he developed a belief in the need for diversification opportunities for American agriculture. He said he carried that belief with him during his work as an Iowa mayor, later in the Iowa legislature and as Iowa Governor.
President Obama, said Vilsack, sent him three main goals beyond the obvious for his agency as he took over as Secretary of Ag. Vilsack summed those up as healthier and more nutritious food for America’s children, expanding alternative energy production on America’s agricultural lands and research to facilitate a transition away from American agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Rounding out the driving forces that will set the agency’s policy goals, Vilsack pointed out a handful of key findings from USDA’s recently complete Ag Census. The number of small farms, those reporting a $1,000 or less in gross sales, is growing. The number of large farms, those reporting over $500,000 in gross annual sales, is also growing. On the decline is the number of farms reporting gross sales between $10,000 and $500,000. Vilsack said some of those medium sized farms grew bigger, but many went out of business.
In a finding that Vilsack described as “startling,” he said that of America’s 2.2 million farmers, 900,000 work off-farm at least 200 days a year. “That’s pretty much a full time job,” he said noting that is just operators, not their spouses. He also said the average age of the American farmer is 57, up from an average of 55 years just five years ago.
USDA’s work toward meeting the President’s goals and addressing some of the concerns brought to light by the recent census received a boost in the recently passed stimulus package. “Twenty-eight billion dollars of that $800 billion was directed to USDA with instructions to get it to work in the economy,” said Vilsack.
“So, you take all of that, the President’s instructions, current events, the financial challenges and the stimulus package and the trends in agriculture from the Ag Census and what it tells me is that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Vilsack.
“We need to make small-size farms into mid-size farms,” he said, noting that the goal will partially be approached through reauthorization of the school lunch program. He said many of those small farms produce fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and specialty crops. USDA will put a greater emphasis on these foods in the future of the school lunch program.
“Most people don’t know that two-thirds of our program is food and nutrition,” said Vilsack. It also has an economic component with $9.20 in economic activity for every $5 invested.
Using the recent challenges peanut farmers have faced following the negligence of one company and widespread recalls as an example, Vilsack said, “You’re going to see a very significant effort to improve safety and security of our food system. We have thousands of dedicated workers every day in plants and meatpacking facilities making sure the food we consume is safe. We need to work to do a better job with all food products.”
Vilsack said there needs to be a greater emphasis on preventing food-borne illnesses rather than mitigating them. “Three hundred and twenty-five thousand Americans, every single year, now go to the hospital for food borne illnesses. That doesn’t include the millions who get sick, but don’t go to the hospital.” He said, “It impacts the ability of farmers and ranchers to sell their products.”
Rural America’s wastewater treatment facilities, roads and railway systems will also receive attention, according to Vilsack. He said the end goal is an ability to transport America’s crops and products “more quickly and less expensively.”
Vilsack said, “You’ll see the obvious effort on USDA’s part to continue the momentum of building and sustaining an energy industry within USDA and within farming and ranching. That means biofuels. That means renewable energy. It means windmills. It means solar panels. It means all that and more.”
Ethanol will also be included in that effort. “USDA has a responsibility of keeping an eye on that industry and provide assistance and help particularly to struggling processing facilities so that we maintain the infrastructure so that we can take advantage of second and third generation biofuels that are being developed with the help of USDA and the Department of Energy.”
On the food/fuel debate, Vilsack said, “We have the capacity to do both and need to do both if we’re going to meet the President’s instructions that he wants more energy production from our farms.” He said, “You’ll see a commitment to helping bio-refineries become established. We’ll work with the Department of Energy to coordinate our efforts.”
Vilsack also told the audience of his intentions to accelerate implementation of the Farm Bill. He specifically mentioned the Conservation Security Program (CSP), a voluntary program administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. CSP focuses on providing financial and technical assistance to promote the conservation and improvement of soil, water, air, energy, plant and animal life and other conservation purposes on working lands.
Investment in science and research, according to Vilsack, will be an important aspect of the USDA under the Obama Administration. “We have six billion people today,” he said noting the world’s growing population. “The population continues to grow, but the land available to produce crops isn’t going to grow. We have to figure out how to do more with what we have.”
Expansion of trade opportunities is another goal of the new administration. “The reality is that while our country has a trade deficit, in ag we have a trade surplus.” USDA will focus attention on bringing down trade barriers and further expanding American agriculture’s presence in the world’s marketplaces.
He also intends to make sure agriculture is engaged in discussions surrounding global warming. “There is a tremendous opportunity to look at climate change not as a problem, but as an opportunity by using land to reduce our carbon footprint,” he said.
USDA will also become a partner in ensuring awareness of American agriculture’s presence and importance. “There are many in this town who do not understand the important role USDA plays,” he said. “This is a day and age when you have to market and brand yourself. If you don’t it will be easy to be forgotten.”
The two-day Agricultural Outlook Forum is hosted each year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was attended by over 1,700 individuals in 2009.