Michael Scuse, U.S. acting deputy secretary of agriculture, speaks to an audience at Illinois Valley Community College. Scuse conducted a roundtable discussion with local residents, college students, faculty and staff and members of agribusiness to talk about various issues, including the farm bill, biofuels, immigration and climate change. He later traveled to Ottawa, Ill., to award a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant for a streetscape renovation project.
Michael Scuse, U.S. acting deputy secretary of agriculture, speaks to an audience at Illinois Valley Community College. Scuse conducted a roundtable discussion with local residents, college students, faculty and staff and members of agribusiness to talk about various issues, including the farm bill, biofuels, immigration and climate change. He later traveled to Ottawa, Ill., to award a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant for a streetscape renovation project.

OGLESBY, Ill. — He came to talk and to listen.

“What’s on all of your minds?” said Michael Scuse, the U.S. acting deputy secretary of agriculture, to a room of local residents, agribusiness representatives, media and students, staff and faculty of Illinois Valley Community College in Oglesby.

Scuse had some things to talk about of his own before the roundtable discussion started, and the top of his list was the farm bill.

As Congress moved into the last days of its spring session and prepared to leave town, Scuse predicted that no action would be taken in the House.

“The House will probably leave Washington this week without having done anything for the nutritional side, which means that it will be impossible to go to conference with the Senate,” he said. “This is not fair. Our farmers and ranchers need some sort of certainty. They need to know what’s in that farm bill so they can start making plans for next year.”

Scuse discussed the nutrition programs addressed in the farm bill, as well as benefits to agricultural trade and safe food. He also talked about realities of production agriculture to the audience largely made up of non-agricultural people.

“The farming part of this is the safety net. It’s the safety net for our farmers and ranchers. You hear about the subsidies this and the subsidies that, but, look, it costs a lot of money to farm and ranch in today’s world. Our costs over the last five, six years have doubled, and in some cases, they’ve tripled. We need that safety net because of the cost. If you don’t have a strong safety net, ladies and gentlemen, one year puts you out of business. One year — because of our cost of production — can put you out of business if we don’t have that safety net,” said Scuse, noting that the Senate version of the bill includes provisions to protect not only grain farmers, but also livestock farmers and dairy farmers.

Scuse, who spoke on the same things his boss, Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, touched on just a week prior at his keynote address before the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Economic Summit in Ames, said immigration reform is high on the priority list at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I know in areas around the country, it can be a very contentious issue and a great deal of debate. Here’s a reality — about 70 percent of that agriculture workforce out there picking your crops is immigrant labor,” Scuse said.

“Go to a meatpacking facility, go to a dairy farm today, go to an orchard, go to a vegetable farm, agriculture in this country is dependent on an immigrant workforce.”

He also pointed out that consumers would bear the impact if there is not reform to the current immigration system that includes a way for the U.S. agriculture sector to access a dependable and legal source of immigrant labor.

“Without it, I don’t think anyone in this room or any of our consumers would want to pay the high price that they would have to pay for the goods in the grocery store,” he said. “We need that reform and we need it badly and it’s something that should have happened a very long time ago.”

Scuse touched on the need for climate change and pointed to a USA Today story that documented how rising oceans would cause the populations of major waterfront cities — such as Galveston, Texas; Miami; and Norfolk, Va. — would stand to lose half their populations to flooding in the coming decades.

“I want you all to think about what the cost is going to be when we start losing or have to relocate or build walls around cities,” he said.

In answer to a media question about the recent attacks on the U.S. corn ethanol industry and the Renewable Fuel Standard, Scuse reiterated the USDA’s support for the RFS.

“The secretary, myself, and all of us at USDA, we are strong supporters of the RFS,” said Scuse, who hails from and lives in Delaware. “They hit me hard last year during the drought, especially the poultry companies. I come from a poultry-producing state, because they wanted to do away with or waive the RFS.”

Scuse went on to note that even despite a catastrophic drought in the Corn Belt in 2012, U.S. farmers grew one of the largest corn crops in history, a crop that ranked in the top 10 largest U.S. corn crops. He also pointed to steadying or falling prices for new crop 2013 corn.

“The arguments that they used were not valid,” he said. “I’m not saying that ethanol is the only answer or ethanol made from corn is the only answer. We still need to continue to look at new products to create energy from.”

The Illinois ethanol industry was represented by officials from Patriot Renewable Fuels in Annawan, including Gene Griffith, CEO, and Rich Ruebe, CEO of GTL Resources, parent company of Illinois River Energy in Rochelle.

Scuse noted the need to continue to fund agricultural research, including that into bioproducts and biofuels.

“Funding for research is one of the areas where we really are lacking in this country. When you look at what other countries are putting into research, when you look at a country like China and the amount of funding they’re putting into research, we’re not doing enough and we need to do more to fund the research,” he said.

When he finished his remarks, Scuse turned to his audience to hear their concerns.

One audience member, who identified himself as a farmer, said he had a “bushel basket” of issues.

“You mentioned jobs. Agriculture, I think, supplies more jobs to the country than anybody else does. I’m a farmer when I buy a combine or a tractor, I’m helping jobs in the rubber industry, the steel industry, transportation, just to name a few. So I think it’s very important that agriculture flourishes, and we’ve had one of the best opportunities that we’ve had over the last four years here,” said the audience member, who also had some thoughts on the farm bill.

“One of the things on the nutrition side — I don’t think we should be paying people not to work. No company can pay out more in welfare and helping people not to work and survive and our country can’t do it either. If we’re going to feed somebody when they’re down and out, I don’t have a problem with that, but everybody can do something. They need to have a little self-respect, work a little bit. No work, no eat, I’m sorry.

“In some cases, people can’t work, but I see many cases where they’re just on the dole and it goes on for generations and just keeps going — somehow we’ve got to fix that.”

He also spoke in favor of continuing government support for crop insurance premiums for farmers.

“Insurance subsidies, that’s been a great thing for agriculture, and I think it will cost the government less money, subsidizing the crop insurance policies than having to come up with money when we have a disaster,” he said.

He also called for attention to the nation’s waterway infrastructure.

“These locks and dams are older than I am. We’ve studied this situation for longer than it took to build them in the first place, and we need those locks and dams fixed up, keep that transportation flowing,” he said.

Scuse was accompanied by Colleen Callahan, Illinois state director of USDA Rural Development. They were on their way to Ottawa for Scuse to award city officials there with a $99,000 Rural Business Enterprise Grant for a downtown streetscape project.

Illinois Valley Community College was itself a recipient of a similar RBEG grant in the same amount in 2012. The college is using the grant to fund instructional equipment for its renewable wind energy technicians program.