Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, addresses members of the Iowa Farm Bureau at the group’s annual economics summit at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Vilsack emphasized the need to get a five-year unified farm bill in order to continue programs from crop insurance to nutrition to conservation and energy. He also talked about climate change, trade and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, addresses members of the Iowa Farm Bureau at the group’s annual economics summit at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Vilsack emphasized the need to get a five-year unified farm bill in order to continue programs from crop insurance to nutrition to conservation and energy. He also talked about climate change, trade and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
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 vu.

“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 Bureau.

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 sequestration.

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 since 2009.

“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.