USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during an address at the Commodity Classic in Nashville, called for accelerated passage of a farm bill this calendar year, saying he is more optimistic now than he was earlier about the farm bill end zone being reached.
Picking up on President Obama's continued criticism of the lack of action by Congress on a host of issues, Vilsack said Americans are tired of excuses from lawmakers about their lack of action on the key issues.
Vilsack frequently brings up USDA's celebration this year of its 150th anniversary, and compares the track record of Congress in 1862. It didn't just create a new Ag department,he said, adding it supported a transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act and established the Land Grant University System. "This was all done in the middle of a civil war," he noted. "That's what America does. We don't make excuses, we solve problems," he said to applause.
Regarding the farm bill debate ahead, Vilsack listed some of his and the Obama administration goals:
- A strong safety net for farmers, including a sound crop insurance program. Proposed cuts in the administration's Fiscal Year 2013 proposals, Vilsack told reporters, would still leave the industry making about 12% return on investment.)
- A strong but streamlined conservation program. He announced a new conservation initiative under the current farm bill that would enroll up to 1 million acres in several programs to conserve grasslands and wetlands. It includes a larger, $150-an-acre signing incentive payment for the continuous Conservation Reserve Program, an increase from $100 an acre.
- Continued support for expanding agriculture exports. "It is important to build on what we've seen the last several years," Vilsack said. "We have a strong export effort and the farm bill…should make sure and reassure the market that we are not going to take a step back," Vilsack added, noting the $137 billion in ag exports last year, which was a $42 billion surplus. He repeated a factoid that he has spoken about many times: that every $1 billion in surplus is 8,400 jobs. He also noted that the trade surplus was just $5 billion five years ago. But keeping markets open won't be easy, Vilsack said, recalling that the U.S. government encountered 1,500 trade barriers, and the competition is getting steeper.
- Increased spending on agricultural research. "In the past we have invested in research, mapping the genome of crops and animals. I know times are tough fiscally…we need to invest in basic research to be the most productive today and tomorrow. The extent to which we invest in research is correlated to our ability to be productive," Vilsack said. He lated said that the research investment is critical given that food production has to rise 70 percent in the next 40 years. "Who is going to lead that, China? Europe? Brazil? My preference is America."
- Biofuels. "We need to take every aspect of ag, every blade of grass, every particle of livestock waste, for the fibers and fabric and virtually every element of the economy," Vilsack said. That biobased economy will require support in the farm bill for USDA to invest in the infrastructure for those programs. Vilsack noted the need to have the ability for USDA Rural Development to invest in biorefineries and to "create these local markets for local production and create new opportunities."
- Additional aid in helping beginning farmers get started, including making crop insurance more responsive to their need and helping young farmers in the face of rising land prices via a program that could include an incentive to help beginning farmers acquire land without sellers dealing with high capital gains costs. He pointed to the Iowa farm he owns with his wife. "That farm has increased in value nine times since we've owned it," he noted. "I have two sons that are interested. But if we sold the farm today we would be subject to a substantial amount of taxes." After his address, Vilsack detailed that, "The average age of farmers is nearly 60 and the number of farmers over 75 rose 30%." He said the market should provide a system for young farmers to invest in land.
- Need for immigration reform. As for immigration, Vilsack directed his comments toward Congress. "You also need a workforce," he said. "Immigration is another tough issue and there are some who like to use it to divide us. But sadly situations existed last year and perhaps this year, where your hard work to produce crops will go for naught if there aren't people to pick, process and package what you produce."