USDA Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack was a busy man at the 2014 Ag Outlook Forum. He moderated two panels, delivered a presentation and answered questions in a press event following his address. The following are some highlights from his commentary.
2014 Farm Bill
Vilsack praised the leadership that helped shepherd a difficult farm bill through Congress. He said their efforts along with those of many others led to a true reform bill. It is significant, according to Vilsack, that the safety net of this farm bill is explainable to those outside of the agriculture, and noted that it has been tough to explain the logic behind programs making payments when prices are at record highs.
With the new bill, Vilsack says the safety net kicks in when it is needed. He also noted the importance of having such a safety net—in terms of encouraging young people to enter or remain in the industry, keeping U.S. food prices at bargain levels and preventing the U.S. from relying on others for food security.
Vilsack spoke to the importance of expanding export markets for the commercial producers as well as local and regional markets for smaller growers. He also praised the new bill’s efforts toward creating manufacturing opportunities in rural areas.
In terms of implementation, Vilsack said the only commitment to date he has made is on livestock disaster assistance; immediate focus is on meeting the 60-day deadline for getting a livestock disaster assistance signup implemented, according to Vilsack.
He said he has not yet had a chance to review a priority list that a team at USDA is working to put together to prevent any sort of backlog or clog in the system in getting the programs of the new farm bill functioning. He said he hopes to be able to provide more insight as to program implementation by the Commodity Classic event, which kicks off Feb. 27.
2014 Ag Census
Vilsack stressed that data of the 2012 Agriculture Census was preliminary, and that the full set of data will be released "sometime" this spring (later presentations said the full report will be released in May 2014). He also cautioned against comparing the data to previous years because it is preliminary, the response rate was down from previous years, and the 2012 drought likely had some influence on the information.
Vilsack and other presenters emphasized that the census data collected by National Ag Statistics Service (NASS) can only be used for the purpose described—to inform as to the state of agriculture and policymaking in the future, with one presenter joking we are not EPA.
Vilsack highlighted the following from the census data:
- 72 million acres of farmland have been lost since 1982, but the rate of conversion has slowed.
- The average age of principal operators in the U.S. continues to rise (It has steadily risen from 50.5 in 1982 to 58.3 in 2012), and this aging of the farm population is expected to continue over the short-term. However, the number of young farmers under the age of 35 has risen slightly since the 2007 survey. Other presenters noted this could rise further when the full data including information on the second and third principal operators of the farm is available.
- While the overall number of farms in the U.S. is down 4.3% from the 2007 ag census, the number of very small or very large operations have held steady or increased. This reflects the importance of recent and ongoing efforts toward export growth for large producers as well as support to local and regional food systems for small farmers, according to Vilsack.
- But Vilsack emphasized that a deep concern is the medium-sized producers who have been feeling the greatest stress. He says that is why the new farm bill includes provisions to create market opportunities in local and regional ways for ag production and well as waste product to fuel new manufacturing with a bio-based economy.
- There has been an increase in minority operators, reflecting the changing character of agriculture.
- The loss of rural population—the first time in history—should be a nationwide concern. Vilsack says the new farm bill should help, particularly livestock disaster assistance, increased investment in local and regional food systems and young farmer assistance program expansion.