The Secretary of Agriculture has to focus on a host of fronts, given the breadth of issues USDA has under its jurisdiction. Current Secretary Tom Vilsack has obviously put his experience as a farm-state governor to good use.
He fielded questions on a host of issues, from beginning farmers to his perceived lack of focus on
Roger Bernard, Farm Journal Washington Editor, sat down with Vilsack last month in Washington, D.C., to discuss his vision for the Department of Agriculture and his plans for its future. Following
is a summary of the questions and answers from this exclusive interview for Top Producer
magazine. You can read more from the interview at www.TopProducer-Online.com.
There is a perception among those in commercial production agriculture that this Agriculture Department has put too much focus on small and organic producers. Is that accurate?
“That’s not an accurate perception at all,” Vilsack said. He cited the implementation of disaster programs from the 2008 farm bill such as the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payment program (SURE) and the Livestock Indemnity Program as efforts “very important to the 1,300 counties across the country that are declared a disaster area. Those farmers need help and we’re getting them help.” Vilsack also touted recent efforts to help dairy farmers.
“We’re doing a good deal of work in the area of trade,” Vilsack added, which he credited to work by the administration to “aggressively promote trade on an individual country-by-country basis.”
Vilsack said USDA has pried open some export markets where barriers have arisen “without science-based rationale or without consistency with international rules.”
USDA’s efforts have also provided more “opportunities for crop insurance, in particular in rangeland and forage areas, as well as creating for the first time a premium opportunity for those farmers with good records,” Vilsack said.
Given those wide-ranging actions, Vilsack said, to his mind “it’s hard to make a case that we’re not focused on all of agriculture.”
Even the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative was “launched with a notion that it is not just about organic producers, but all producers,” Vilsack said.
The goal with that effort is to create local markets, trying to make sure schools, hospitals and institutional purchasers “are fully aware of what is being produced in their own community,” he noted.
USDA’s Economic Research Service has signaled that U.S. farm income will be up in 2010, something Vilsack says reflects well on production agriculture.
Vilsack’s conclusion: “This is a USDA that recognizes the full breadth of its responsibilities—not just to production agriculture but to the rural America that sort of surrounds production agriculture and complements what production agriculture is doing.”
What’s your view on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s decision to approve E15 for 2007 and newer cars and light trucks?
“We are anxiously awaiting additional word from EPA on 2001 to 2006 models, because the more models that are covered under E15, the greater the opportunities are for us to expand demand for our product,” Vilsack said.
Another factor relative to providing more of those opportunities, Vilsack said, is more retail outlets. “We recognize that the distribution system needs to be strengthened, and there needs to be an opportunity for us to work with our petroleum marketers, with our convenience store operators, in a way that can encourage them to establish the distribution systems that make it more convenient,” he said.
But Congress needs to play a role, too, Vilsack stressed. “They cannot pull incentives away from this industry too quickly,” he cautioned. “We saw a loss of 12,000 jobs when the biodiesel tax credit was allowed to lapse.”
Also, any ethanol industry production incentives need to be renewed “in a way that allows us to create better demand for biofuels and more convenience in terms of customer locations.”
One subject many in rural regions are focusing in on is beginning farmers. How much traction has USDA made in this area?
“I don’t think anybody can claim a great deal of success in this area because, frankly, I think we need more tools,” Vilsack said, in a revealing admission. Specifically, he said we need to be more “innovative and creative” when it comes to getting young people interested in making farming their occupation.
USDA has implemented the begin-ning farmer loan program created in the 2008 farm bill and has fully funded that effort, Vilsack said.
“We continue to work with a number of higher education institutions to encourage them to help us identify young people and provide them the tools, expertise and knowledge to be successful,” he said, adding that the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach is another way to focus programs on beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.
But Vilsack is eying the next farm bill as a way to further bolster those efforts. He wants to look at efforts to reward “sweat equity” for beginning farmers.
“Not just for the fortunate young people who happened to be raised in a farm family that has land
debt-free,” Vilsack detailed, “but also for young people in small towns who see farming as their
chosen way of life, but who can’t quite figure out how they get enough of a stake to convince a commercial banker to lend them money to put a crop in the ground or buy equipment to expand.“
One possibility, according to Vilsack: “Go to farmers who have no family or who have family that have left the farm and are now in the cities and are interested in perhaps just renting the farm out. We need to determine if there is a way we can provide some kind of tax relief. Is there a way in which you can encourage young people to work on the farm and give them some kind of equity stake in that farm as a result of that work? Can the government figure out a way to reimburse them for that?”
Is this something you might consider for the next farm bill, or something you could do now?
“I don’t think we can do it right now,” Vilsack replied. “The resources we have for beginning farmer programs are limited by the levels that were authorized by the Congress. I recognize that Congress is the writer of the farm bill, but I’m suggesting that one area of emphasis needs to be beginning farmers.”
Vilsack cites data from the Census of Agriculture as his driving focus in the area of beginning farmers, especially with the average age of a U.S. farmer at 57. “We had a 30% increase in farmers over the age of 75 and a 20% decrease in the number of farmers under 25 in the last Ag Census,” Vilsack observed. “I’m not real good at math, but that’s not a trendline that you want to continue. So I think we really have to address this and become more aggressive about it.”