In any conversation that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has these days, the elephant in the room is the lack of a new five-year farm bill. It's an issue that concerns all types of farmers and he's quick to point out it's a priority for the Obama Administration moving forward.
"We need to provide producers the certainty they need for their operations," he told the media after his speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation Monday in Nashville, Tenn. While Congress has passed a farm bill extension it's not enough moving into a year where he notes 597 counties have already been declared as disaster areas because of the drought.
"That extension doesn't provide a farm bill for everyone," Vilsack notes. "There's nothing for specialty crop producers, dairy producers will have Milk Income Loss Contract payments - eh, not enough - and livestock producers are just out of luck. All it takes is for Congress to act."
But the environment is changed. The looming sequestration talks could have a significant impact on spending especially if proposed cuts to Defense spending are slowed. The savings must come from somewhere. And if Congress doesn't move at all, Vilsack says in a six-month period USDA could face forced cuts as high as 8%, which in the shortened time period amounts to a 16% cut in the agency's budget.
Already, USDA has been involved in a program to reduce costs, cut overlap in services and streamline how it does business. Since that program was rolled out at the 2012 American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Honolulu, Hawaii, the agency has trimmed more than 2,000 jobs, and tightened spending in a number of areas. He notes that under sequestration it would be far more aggressive.
The frustration is that House and Senate Ag leadership stepped up in 2012 and developed savings in two different farm bill versions. While the Senate passed its version, the House sat on one approved by its own ag committee. "This is a difficult time," Vilsack says. "I don't recall a time when the Senate passed farm bill version and the House Ag Committee passed a version and we didn't end up getting a farm bill."~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
Given that the Senate version offered $23 billion in cuts over the next 10 years, and the proposed House version offered $33 billion in cuts, Vilsack says "we're the only outfit that stepped up" in the environment to cut spending.
It's this situation that has him calling on groups to look at new ways to improve ag's clout in the world. As he told Farm Bureau members during his speech, the size of the rural population in relation to urban dwellers is the lowest ever. However, he says there are ways to expand agriculture's voice in non-ag ways and relate to those groups how important ag is across the country.
One area where agriculture could have significant influence and involvement is development of a new immigration policy. Already groups have come together under the Agriculture Workforce Coalition to start that dialogue. Vilsack says agriculture has a vested interest in an immigration policy that helps maintain its workforce, which will also help boost its clout.
"The President is clear in that he wants a comprehensive approach to immigration policy," Vilsack says. He adds that those people are already in the country and there should be some process they can go through to become legitimately here from learning the language to paying back taxes. "This needs to get done," he says.
During the press conference, Vilsack took on some other key topics impacting agriculture these days.
GMO Labels: The rising number of petitions to get measures on state ballots for labeling food for biotech content is an issue that didn't go away with the defeat of Prop 37 in California. "I know of no health reasons that would require GMO content labeling," Vilsack says. "This is an opportunity to educate people about the science of this technology."
He notes that making labeling a "moral issue" is a challenge. Currently food labels are not done without some scientific or health benefit.
Direct Payments under an extension: Traditionally these payments are made in the fall, but sign-ups usually begin earlier. Under the farm bill extension passed during fiscal cliff talks very early in 2013 questions remain. Vilsack notes action is needed with 597 counties already classified as disaster areas and the number could rise as lack of snowfall this winter creates continued concern. And if sequestration isn't avoided Congress could pull back. "What Congress giveth it can taketh away," Vilsack notes.
Ractopomine and Russia: Russia is impacting imports of U.S. meat products over ractopomine levels. The challenge is that Russia is now part of the World Trade Organization - which does give the United States some leverage over trade actions. In 2012 the global codex alimentarius, which governs a range of animal health issues, was amended for safe ractopomine levels. This science-based standard is what countries are to use as part of their trade programs. Russia isn't. For now, Vilsack points toward talks and an education approach to help get past the trade barrier. Talks continue.~~~PAGE_BREAK_HERE~~~
Boosting rural clout: Vilsack continues his new theme of ways to boost ag's voice. He notes that agriculture has to be proactive, reaching out to groups and linking their cause to agriculture's. For example, an evangelical preacher wants to feed people, there's a link there. For the environmental community and its concern about climate change, agricultural conservation programs are part of the answer. And for poverty and social justice folks who are pushing for solutions, noting that 90% of poverty is in rural areas is a potential connection point.
"Look, Congressional leaders felt there would be no repercussions when they didn't pass a farm bill even with 41 farm groups in support of the measure," he observes.
Looking back, looking forward: As Vilsack embarks on his next term as Secretary of Agriculture, a move confirmed by the White House Monday though many groups already felt it was a foregone conclusion, he looked back on his accomplishments so far.
He points to four years of record exports which support 1 million jobs; solving civil rights actions that had essentially been festering at USDA for years; achieving the lowest fraud rate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) in its history; energy linkages with the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy for drop-in biofuel use; and expansion of broadband in rural areas over the past four years.
As for a big disappointment in that four-term? "We don't have a five-year farm bill. It' just crazy that we don't have a bill," he comments.
Looking ahead, Vilsack is embracing the challenge of being proactive and the opportunity for agriculture to come together with other groups moving ahead. "When I look at those FFA and 4-H kids and the enthusiasm they have for agriculture, it keeps you young."