Vilsack Clearly Focused on Nutrition as USDA Secretary

February 25, 2009 06:00 PM

Pro Farmer Editors

Nutrition will clearly be a focus for USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack as he heads the Agriculture Department, in part due to that being one of the three priorities that President Barack Obama outlined to Vilsack when he took the job.

Making sure there are more nutritious foods available, doing everything one can to expand energy opportunities and working hard at doing research to allow agriculture to transition away from dependence on fossil fuels are the three priorities Vilsack said Obama gave him when he joined the administration. He outline those during remarks at USDA's Outlook Forum today.

While speaking only in general terms about the Obama budget unveiled today, Vilsack said that it reflects "choices and directions" that have to be made. "All of that in my view suggests a rather aggressive effort by USDA to provide diverse opportunities for farmers and ranchers to succeed."

In remarks to reporters following his address to the Outlook Forum, Vilsack was asked several times about comments made by President Obama this week on denying direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them. That provision was also contained in the Obama budget plan which indicated that the administration wants to phase out direct payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in sales.

Vilsack initially responded that the budget is "a framework" and that the view of the administration is government payments to these farmers that "have significant sales" need to be "adjusted." He proceeded to transition his remarks back to nutrition, noting that 36% of children are overweight or at risk of being overweight. "We need to put more resources into these programs" that deliver food to children.

When asked specifically how many farmers would be impacted by the administration's proposal, Vilsack turned to USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber who informed that 10% of all farmers have sales over $500,000 and that 3% of farmers that receive payments have sales over that mark.

When asked if the dollars to be garnered by denying payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in sales would be used for other USDA programs, Vilsack said it was "not accurate to say we'll take dollars from one place and put them somewhere else."

Regarding whether Vilsack could achieve the same results via regulation, he noted that the rules on what is actively engaged in farming and pay caps are in the process of being reviewed and he wouldn't comment on them.

Regarding appropriations for locks and dams and whether he backed such spending, Vilsack said he was not familiar with the Transportation Department's budget "but I am assuming as we improve our transportation system that would be included as part of that."

Asked about a court ruling ordering EPA to revisit the issue of particulates such as dust from farming, Vilsack said he would rather talk about another court ruling regarding pesticide applications and whether or not such applications could be considered a point source pollutant. "I have talked to EPA administrator (Lisa) Jackson about this and stressed to her the "difficulties that would present."


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