WASHINGTON — For Dale Moore, deputy executive director for public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, Tom Vilsack’s comments Dec. 8 on the tightened child farm labor regulations proposed earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Labor struck close to home.
“People are still concerned about the child labor issue — it’s not going to happen,” said Vilsack, speaking at a forum on post-election agriculture policy sponsored by Farm Journal in Washington.
Vilsack took rural America to task for what he called “reactive thinking” and said those who live outside the urban and suburban areas are becoming “less relevant” in American politics and political decision-making.
“It’s the fact that rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country. We had better recognize that. And we better begin to reverse it,” he said, according to media reports.
Vilsack took his agricultural and rural constituency to task in his speech, lambasting rural America for a mindset of “trying to hold on to what we’ve got” and for taking positions on what he described as “wedge issues,” including increased government regulation.
Vilsack singled out two — the proposed “dust rule,” a tightening of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s particulate matter standards, which would have impacted farm practices from row crops to livestock farming, and the proposed tightening of the Department of Labor’s child labor rules regarding youth working on farms or in agricultural businesses.
The administration withdrew efforts on both of those after an outcry from farmers, ag groups and rural residents.
“They are not small issues. The issues related to ag labor, particularly on the child labor rules, the impact that could have on ag in general, on children on farms and ranches being capable of working on their families’ farms,” said Moore, who noted that youth often learn more from working as hired help for neighbors, as he himself did, and something that could have been ended under the proposed rule change.
“I worked for the neighbors from the time I was 10 or 11. What I learned from them, my dad and granddad loved, because I’d come back to our farm and do things the Erickson brothers’ way. I might ignore what my dad tells me, but when I’m getting paid to do it, I don’t want the Ericksons calling my dad and saying he wasn’t doing this the right way. It was not a small issue.”
Moore also noted the impact that the proposed rule could have had on training the next generation of farmers and young people entering agricultural jobs.
“How do you train the next generation of farmers and ranchers if, until they are 16 or older, they are not allowed to so anything around the farm?” he said.
Moore added that the fear of increased regulation on every aspect of American agriculture, from row-crop agriculture to livestock farming, is a real one.
“I can’t argue his perspective on the dust regulations, but you add water, you add spray drift permitting requirements, waters of the U.S. definitions,” he said.
He referred to the situation with the Arkansas River in parts of Kansas, where the river is wide and shallow and sometimes dried up.
“Even in western Kansas, you get into areas where we haven’t had water, the Arkansas River, still meets that definition and they start expanding their regulatory reach and pretty soon, farmers and ranchers are having to deal with regulations that intrude on their ability to do business,” he said.
Moore also expressed some surprise at Vilsack seeming to blame the lack of a current 2012 farm bill on the rural populace’s mindset. He noted that groups, including the AFBF, supported items in both the Senate version, which did pass the Senate, and in the House version and also opposed items in both versions.
He also noted that the Senate bill had bipartisan support and the House bill had bipartisan support from House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson.
“All the things the secretary suggested needed to be done were reflected in the committees working together,” he said.
Moore said the secretary’s description on why there isn’t yet a 2012 farm bill denies the work put into the bill prior to the election.
“It is a bit frustrating. The reason that a farm bill didn’t get done is because ag doesn’t understand it doesn’t have 218 automatic yes votes doesn’t do service to a lot of hard work by farm and commodity groups, but also by members of Congress every day,” he said.
Moore served as chief of staff for USDA by President George W. Bush and served all four agriculture secretaries who served Bush, including Ann Veneman, Mike Johanns, Chuck Conner and Ed Schafer.
He noted that there may have been more behind Vilsack’s remarks than met the eye. Vilsack’s wife, Christie, lost a race for the fourth congressional district in Iowa to incumbent Republican Rep. Steve King.
Christie Vilsack faced accusations early in her campaign that the campaign was being funded and endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States. The HSUS tried to donate $1,000 to the campaign, and the Vilsack campaign publicly declined that donation.
“There’s this feeling that I, speaking for myself, get. There’s something missing, something that’s not quite fully explained, about why he would make these comments,” Moore said. “There’s something else to the equation that we aren’t privy to.”
Mainstream media reports hinted that Vilsack’s remarks may have been prompted in part by rural America’s voting tendencies in the just-finished election.
Some 61 percent of rural voters supported Republican candidate Mitt Romney with just 37 percent voting for Barack Obama.
While the West Coast and the East Coast tended to favor Obama, many heavily-agricultural states, including Beef Belt states such as Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and farm states including Indiana and the Southeast, went to Romney.
Pam Johnson, president of the National Corn Growers Association and a corn farmer from Floyd County, Iowa, said the secretary’s remarks raised some questions.
“I read them with great interest. My first reaction is that he asks — and raises — a very good question about relevancy,” she said.
Johnson noted that as the NCGA begins its new year, the group representing corn farmers in the U.S. is asking the same questions.
“We are actually beginning our new year this week, and over the weekend, I was writing about how to be relevant and effective as we start out the new year,” said Johnson, who said that the group is in the midst of writing a new strategic plan, redefining goals and priorities and determining how to best serve its members.
“I see it as a wakeup call and I think when we can take a good, hard look at ourselves, it is a good thing. I think it behooves us to do so.”