Latham Cites Farmer Perception, While Vilsack Responds With 'Reality' Regarding Claims USDA is No Longer Farmer Friendly

March 16, 2014 11:55 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Heated exchanged during House appropriations hearing

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) surprised USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during a March 14 hearing by the House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee. Latham, who announced previously he was not seeking reelection, told Vilsack that during his talks with Iowa farmers, "they don't think the department is on their side." Vilsack forcefully responded with specific examples to the contrary, but the heated exchanged surprised many observers.

The following is a transcript of how the topic unfolded:

Rep. Tom Latham:

"Welcome, Mr. Secretary. This is my last time, probably, to be here with you, and I guess I want to make a couple observations. Going back with the Clinton administration, the Bush administration, I had always heard from farmers that they felt that the department was supporting them, that that was their advocates in Washington for the farmers, was the Department of Agriculture.

"I will just have to say I hear every time I meet with farmers, talk to them one on one, is that there is a huge change. They don't think the department is on their side. When you look at things like the Department of Labor, when they come out with a proposed rule so that farm kids can't help their parents on the farm, the first response from you in the department basically is in support of the Department of Labor, rather than the farm and farm families.

"The department -- I mean, you've got a lot of livestock producers out there. The department talks about "meatless Monday," and the message that that sends to their -- what should be the department's constituency, that you're against them. You're not with them.

"When they're inundated with regulations from EPA, whether it be under the Clean Water Act, particulates with the Clean Air Act and dust, we don't hear anything in opposition from the department to support the farmers themselves in their positions. Renewable fuel standard coming out -- and I'd like to know what advice or counsel or what the department's position is. It's going to be devastating to a lot of people in rural Iowa certainly and a lot of places across the Midwest and throughout the country as far as agriculture.

"But I just am -- leaving here, it is very, very disappointing to see the change in attitude at the department towards what should be their constituents, the farmers themselves. This is something that is obviously near and dear to my heart with my background, coming from the big town of Alexander, 165 people, living in the suburbs on the farm outside of town.

"But there is a change. There's a huge change. And I hear it every day. And I don't know if you want to respond. We have a luncheon. That's why I have the green tie on, with the Irish ambassador here. But I don't know if you have any response, but it is very discouraging to me."

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack:

"Well, Congressman, I am surprised by your comments. And I do want to respond because I think they merit a response. With reference to the Department of Labor, this department basically suggested that it was not the appropriate approach and that we suggested it was an opportunity for us to better educate folks about public safety and farm safety generally. And we worked with the Labor Department to get that rule pulled and to create an alternative approach."


"Well, it wasn't your first response in your tweet..."


"Yes, it was."


... in support of what they were doing."


"Yes, it was. Yes, it was. No, no."


"Yes, it was."


"No, our first response, Congressman, was to suggest that there was a better way to do this and that we worked with the department to find a better, and we're working with Penn State and a number of other land grant universities to develop a curriculum that will make it easier for -- and we work with the Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union. You can talk to Bob Stallman and Roger Johnson and others who were in the room with me when that alternative was proposed.

"As it relates to 'meatless Monday,' I was very critical of that effort and immediately so. It was pulled immediately. It wasn't something that I sanctioned. And I would point out that livestock exports are at record levels under this administration. Every dollar that we spend in promotion is generating $35 in trade. We are at record levels of agricultural trade and record levels of farm income.

"In terms of the EPA, we're obviously working with the Ben Waters (ph) at (ph) the U.S. (ph) to make sure that they fully understand and appreciate exactly what will and will not happen, based on what they're looking at. We've encouraged the EPA to talk with farmers, and we've arranged for meetings to take place between farm groups and the EPA administrator. We've arranged and suggested that EPA administrators go out and talk to farmers.

"The dust rule doesn't exist, and you know it.

"As far as the RFS is concerned, we are working with the EPA so that they fully understand and appreciate the current situation relative to gas. When the RFS was established, as you well know, it was based on the assumption that there would be increased gas utilization by Americans. That's not necessarily been the case. What we are focused on is making sure that there are continued opportunities to expand exports of ethanol and continued capacity to have higher blends.

"In fact, I have spoken directly to Governor Branstad in our home state about a joint effort to encourage more E-85 tanks. I find it interesting that Congress made it more difficult for us to do that when you essentially restricted us from using funds for blender pumps, but we'll figure out a way to continue to help expand opportunity for higher blends.

"So I'm happy to visit with those farmers who expressed disappointment to you. That's not what I hear. And so obviously, we must be talking to a different group."


"I think we're probably talking to the same people, but..."


"I don't think we are, Congressman, with all due respect. I don't think we are."


"Well, I know what I know. And it's very disheartening to me to see the change in the relationship. There is an absolute feeling out in the country that the department sides more with EPA, that takes the orders from above and are not advocating for farmers. And that's..."


"That's just not true. That's just not true."


"Reality -- and perception can be reality, if it's -- but that's -- that is the reality of the situation.

"Anyway, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. I'll have to excuse myself here. Thank you."

Comments: So much for Iowa nice. In my judgment, Vilsack responded forcefully and politely to his fellow Iowan. Some of those actually attending the hearing said the atmosphere was tense as the two debated the topic. As the full transcript of the hearing shows, Vilsack came prepared to respond to a plethora of detailed questions by panel members. While many can disagree with USDA's decisions the past few years, and I am one of them, Vilsack is always prepared -- perhaps the best prepared for a budget or appropriations hearing than any Ag secretary I recall -- and I go back to Earl Butz days.


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.






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