Tom Vilsack was a little emotional toward the end of his two talks last week in Des Moines as he reflected on his eight years as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. His tenure will soon be ending as a new ag secretary and new president will take office. Vilsack is the only member of President Obama’s original cabinet still serving in office. The former Iowa governor is one of the longest-serving U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture in history. He’s held the position longer than anyone in the past four decades.
“People ask me why I have stayed,” Vilsack said during his speech to the annual meeting of the Iowa Farm Bureau. “The answer is simple; I love the people I work for and the people I work with. It has been an extraordinary honor. I have been blessed. And I realize I owe a lot of it to the hardworking farmers and ranchers of this great nation. As long as I live, I will be forever grateful.”
Praises the hard work and productivity of American farmers
After he gave the keynote address at the Farm Bureau meeting, the secretary went a couple blocks down the street to the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. There he was presented the Borlaug Medallion by the World Food Prize Foundation and shared his thoughts with a roomful of people. They were there to see him receive his award, to wish him well, and to listen.
Vilsack listed the many reasons he believes rural America and agriculture are underappreciated. He talked about the high percentage of citizens from rural areas who serve in the U.S. military. He talked about the impressive increases in food production American agriculture has delivered over the years. The hard work and efficiency of farmers and ranchers allows U.S. citizens to spend a lower percentage of their income on food than people in most other countries.
“The 15% of the U.S. population that lives in rural America supplies 35% to 40% of our military,” said Vilsack. “During my lifetime, agriculture has increased its production by 170% on 26% less land with 22 million fewer farmers. That production has led to low-cost food that has left enough money in people’s budgets to spend on non-food items and stimulate our economy. Everyone who gets to consider doing something other than growing their own food is able to do it thanks to the success of U.S. agriculture.”
Ideas on setting the agenda for agriculture going forward
Looking ahead, Vilsack pointed out there is still a lot more work that needs to be done. That includes making progress to ensure we have clean water, working for free trade with other nations, and fixing our broken immigration system. During his two talks in Des Moines, Vilsack announced a new conservation program from USDA.
It will pay farmers 90% cost-share to install bioreactors and saturated buffers to filter nitrates and phosphorous and other nutrients from fields that are drained with a tile drainage system. He congratulated farmers who are putting water quality protection practices in place on their farms.
The new conservation initiative is called CLEAR, which stands for Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers. CLEAR is targeted to areas where traditional buffers haven’t been effective enough to prevent nutrients from getting into streams, rivers and eventually the Gulf of Mexico and causing hypoxia problems.
New program offers help in dealing with water quality issues
“We think this new CLEAR program is a tremendous opportunity for USDA to partner with producers,” said Vilsack. He hopes the state of Iowa will also come up with additional funding soon to make faster and more widespread progress on water quality improvements. He said, “I want to make sure the government (federal and state) does everything it can to help farmers deal with water quality.”
Vilsack encouraged farmers to talk to their urban neighbors about water quality. “We need to bring about a greater public understanding of this and other issues such as world trade and immigration that affect food production,” he said.
On-going need to advocate for farmers and rural America
In many cases, certain groups are pushing their social reform agenda to fight modern agriculture “without realizing their impact on food costs,” he said. Vilsack told about a conversation he had with food industry leaders about their plans to move toward making their food products from eggs and hens used in a cage-free system.
“It is estimated that grocery stores and restaurants will need about 210 million cage-free eggs in a few years,” said Vilsack. “That’s a 12-fold increase from current cage-free egg production capabilities that grocers and restaurants are already buying. The shift to producing cage-free eggs will require an estimated $8 billion of investment by egg producers. But the food industry representatives I talked with seemed unaware of the potential need for farmers to recoup those added costs.”
Ideas on 2018 Farm Bill are beginning to be discussed
Vilsack said he hopes the farm bill discussion starts by evaluating the needs of rural communities rather than mandating that a certain amount of money must be cut. “When you start by setting a goal to cut the budget, you are pitting programs against one another,” he said. “The conversation deserves to start by zeroing in on what the needs are, and then determine how to meet budget goals.”
At both of his speaking events in Des Moines, Vilsack, who turned 66 on December 13, hedged his answer when asked by reporters what he will do after his term is up soon at USDA. He didn’t rule out a return to public office, but he said it is highly unlikely. Vilsack said he hopes to find a job that allows him to continue serving farmers and agriculture.
Encouraging students to train for careers in agriculture
The secretary said he’s also interested in working with young people, getting them involved in careers in agriculture and encouraging them to help solve problems, such as world hunger. To the young people in the audience, the students who attended his talk at the World Food Prize Foundation, Vilsack said: “I’m challenging you to think big, to think bold. To think like Norman Borlaug did. Ask yourself, how can you help?”
As Tom Vilsack looked back on his term as secretary of agriculture, it was clear there is much to be proud of. “I’m proud of our civil rights record at USDA, and I’m incredibly proud that morale is up in the department. We had some years of record farm income, record exports, and record soil conservation achievements. And with the nutrition work we’ve done at USDA, we are now seeing obesity rates among young children come down. There is a lot that has been accomplished, and of course, always a lot more to do. It’s been a great run.”