AMES, Iowa — He saved the best — or worst, depending on
one’s view — for last.
After a lunchtime keynote speech in which he talked up U.S.
agriculture and his agency’s various programs and efforts, Tom Vilsack had déjà
“It seems like I was here just last year at this time
talking about this,” he said to Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm
Vilsack spoke in 2012 at the first economic summit hosted by
Iowa Farm Bureau on the need for Congress to pass a unified, five-year farm
bill. The Senate passed a bill as did the House Agriculture Committee.
That bill died when Speaker of the House John Boehner
refused to bring the bill to the full House floor for a vote. The bill wasn’t
taken up by the lame-duck Congress after the 2012 elections, forcing lawmakers
to pass a last-minute extension at the end of 2012.
Vilsack urged the audience to not allow their lawmakers to
go down the same path.
“If we can’t get this job done, if Congress can’t get it
done on Sept. 30, please do not succumb to the pressure of extending existing
programs, because if you do, you’re going to reward failure. When was the last
time in your homes, with your family, or even in your operations that you
rewarded failure? I suspect never. Why would you reward failure in your
Congress?” he said.
Vilsack said an extension would leave out many important
programs contained in the unified Senate version of the farm bill, including
assistance for specialty crop producers, research assistance, the energy title
and assistance to livestock and dairy farmers, who still are recovering from
impacts of the 2012 drought.
“The reality is, if you look back over the course of the
last several years, the only time folks work in Congress is when there’s a
crisis. Think about it. Why did we get the extension last year? It’s because
folks understood that without an extension, milk prices were going to go up,”
said Vilsack, who added the crisis scenario was the same with the threat of meat
processing facilities closing due to lack of federal inspectors and long airport
lines when the Federal Aviation Administration suffered cuts under
He also talked about the move among conservative Republicans
in the U.S. House to split the farm bill into nutrition and non-nutrition
portions, which they did.
“This notion of splitting the food programs from the farm
programs, please do not believe that is in the long-term best interests of
producers because it is not,” he said.
Vilsack said agriculture needs help from the urban and
suburban members of Congress to be able to continue with existing farm programs,
including crop insurance.
“They’re not on the farms. They’re not producing the vast
majority of what you produce. They don’t understand what you do. They have a
hard time even appreciating what you do, so when they send members to Congress
and to the Senate, they may send folks who do not have an appreciation for what
you do, and those folks may find it hard to understand the importance of having
a safety net, of why crop insurance is not just important for producers, but
it’s also important for the community where producers live,” he said.
“You’ve got to give them a reason why it’s important for
them to think that a farm bill is more than a farm bill. They have to understand
that it is a foods bill, that it is a jobs bill, that it will impact their
constituents. If you separate those two things, you lose that leverage. You lose
that capacity to convince, to persuade, to advocate. Why would you do that?”
The farm bill impasse might have been old news to those
gathered to hear Vilsack, but he and former Iowa governor had new news to share
as the agriculture secretary released results from the 45th general signup of
the Conservation Reserve Program.
Vilsack announced that 28,000 offers were received from
throughout the U.S., and offers were accepted on some 1.7 million acres into the
program. He said that the agency has enrolled some 12 million acres into CRP
“I think it’s important when we make these announcements not
so much to focus on the number of acres being signed up, but the impact and
effect of those acres and the fact that we focus this program on highly erodible
land, the kind of land that ought not to be farmed aggressively,” he said.
He noted that CRP prevents soil erosion of some 300 million
tons annually and prevents about 605 million pounds of nitrogen and about 121
million pounds of phosphorus from entering the nation’s waterways each year.
With the nation’s eastern Corn Belt moving from early spring
snowstorms and then torrential rains during planting that prevented millions of
acres from being planted then to near-drought conditions in parts of Iowa,
Vilsack touched on the issue of climate change.
“Folks may disagree about what is causing the climate to
change, but nobody, especially those who are so close to the land and so
dependent on Mother Nature, can dispute the fact that we’re seeing significant
climate change,” he said.
“The bottom line is that unless we begin to aggressively
promote adaptation and mitigation strategies, we may not be able to do in the
long term what we are able to currently do here in this state or any other state
in terms of agricultural production.”
Vilsack explained the role of the National Cooperative Soil
Survey, a nationwide soil survey project by USDA. The information collected from
144,000 samples taken in more than 6,200 locations throughout the country will
be used by the agency to develop a tool called COMET-FARM, a voluntary carbon
reporting tool that will allow farmers to voluntarily input information about
their farms and farming practices and calculate the effects of those practices
on greenhouse gases.
“It is going to allow us, at some point in time, to
establish market opportunities for those who are regulated — a utility or
another regulated industry — to be able to help meet their regulatory
responsibilities by investing in farms across the United States and conservation
practices across the United States, from no-till to cover cropping and things of
that nature,” Vilsack said. “It’s a new income opportunity that we’re trying to
create for producers across the country.”
One existing source of income for grain farmers is the sale
of grain for biofuels, and Vilsack said those who benefit from the Renewable
Fuels Standard will need to continue to defend it.
“We will aggressively defend the RFS, and I will tell you —
no news to all of you — it us under serious review and, I would suggest, under
serious attack by Big Oil. It will become necessary for us to again remind folks
of why it’s important to have a renewable fuels industry,” he said.
Vilsack also emphasized the need to continue to invest in
research, citing the summit’s location on the campus of Iowa State University, a
noted agricultural research institution.
“We need to continue to invest in agricultural research. For
far too long, we have flat-lined that opportunity. If you invest in research,
you can extend production in this country. If you don’t invest in research, you
will see production flat line, and we will lose our status as the number one
agricultural country in the world,” he said.
As he stressed the need for a unified farm bill, Vilsack
said one item takes precedence above that on the “needs” list.
“First, we have to have a budget. It helps to have a budget
to be able to continue to fund this,” said Vilsack, who went on to describe the
cutbacks and savings his agency has realized, some $900 billion annually in the
last two years.