WASHINGTON – Tom Vilsack, America’s agricultural chief, is one of the few remaining original cabinet members in President Barack Obama’s administration. It’s no wonder he’s still around. Since taking the position in January 2009, Vilsack has benefited from a strong farm economy that has spurred growth in rural areas. And now he is finally able to oversee implementation of the farm bill, legislation he had been pushing Congress to pass for several years that finally was approved in January.
It’s almost unimaginable that Vilsack, now ensconced in a second-floor office overlooking the National Mall in Washington, never thought about a future as agriculture secretary. He spent most of his life in Iowa — the country’s largest corn, hog and ethanol producer and the second-biggest soybean grower — and moved up the political ranks from small-town mayor to two-term governor before coming to the nation’s capital.
Despite the favorable tailwinds of the last five years, the country’s 30th secretary of agriculture said a lot still needs to be done to help the country’s farmers. The list includes passage of immigration reform in Congress, rebuffing of attacks from the oil industry intent on thwarting expansion of renewable fuels and communicating to the public the contribution rural areas play in America’s success.
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“There are exciting opportunities at all levels of agriculture,” Vilsack said. “It’s an exciting new day in rural America and I think as more people realize what’s going on it’s going to draw more and more attention, more and more investment and more and more opportunity.”
In a recent interview, the 63-year old Vilsack spoke about the issues that agriculture is facing today. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: The EPA has proposed cutting how much ethanol must be blended into the fuel supply (called the Renewable Fuel Standard) in 2014. Would a reduction in the Renewable Fuel Standard be harmful for the future of the ethanol industry, and specifically the next-generation of fuels made from corn stover, switch grass, wood chips, etc?
Vilsack: “I think the EPA’s got a very difficult situation confronting it. What we’re dealing with is a full-frontal attack by the oil industry on the entire renewable fuel industry and on eliminating, not altering or changing or modifying, but eliminating the Renewable Fuel Standard and making it extremely difficult for the renewable fuel industry to expand opportunity to utilize more and higher blends of biofuels at a time when the industry is just now getting to a point where new opportunities, new feedstocks, advanced biofuel is beginning to get into the marketplace.
“We’re beginning to see new cellulosic facilities coming on line. We’re beginning to see new opportunities using agricultural waste, crop residue, woody biomass. I think EPA’s thought process is they are supportive of the Renewable Fuel Standard. They want it to continue to be in existence. They want to push back against this frontal assault that has been in the legislative halls, in the courtrooms and in the regulatory process. So that’s one thing. And secondly, when the RFS was established it was based on a premise. It was based on a foundation, a fact at that point in time, of greater and increasingly greater uses of gasoline products by Americans; that we would continue to see increased fuel consumption by the American public.
“As it turns out, that was not necessarily correct. First of all, an economy has something to do with how much fuel is used, but more importantly there has been a major emphasis on increasing the fuel efficiency of trucks and cars and that has resulted in us needing less gas. (The EPA is) trying to make sure (the standard) works within the new reality of more fuel efficient vehicles and they have to make it work in the context of the oil industry making it extremely difficult for higher blends to get into the marketplace by making it harder to have distribution systems and pumping systems in convenience stores and gas stations and by raising questions about engine performance with higher blends.
“Our role at USDA is, No. 1, to make sure that folks understand that context and to make sure that folks understand that we are continuing to attempt to try to figure out ways to expand access to higher blends and provide new opportunities to the biofuel industry with the Department of Defense, with the commercial aviation industry to create new ways in which this industry could flourish. I strongly believe it is critical to rural America that it flourishes.”
Q: What impact, if any, is climate change having on U.S. farming? What do you see as the long-term effects on American agriculture and the consumer?
Vilsack: “In the short term, farmers are struggling with more intense weather patterns, longer droughts, more severe storms and that has had a direct impact year to year, crop to crop, which is why it is fundamentally important to have the safety net programs we have in the farm bill. Longer term, I think it’s really the reason we established the climate change hubs (seven regional centers announced in February to help farmers and ranchers adjust to climate change) and the reason why we’re anxious to have more money invested in agricultural research.
“Longer term the answer to the question is it depends; it depends on whether or not we can continue to assess the vulnerabilities of agriculture, develop new technologies, new approaches and get information out to farmers and producers so they can adapt their operation, they can mitigate the impacts, they can adapt to an ever-increasingly warm climate. And I think you are beginning to see in parts of Canada where corn was not likely to be raised, you are seeing it can now be raised so I think there is a migration taking place and I think we need to be able to adapt and adjust to it.
“For USDA, it’s about creating a process where we analyze in detail the impact of a changing climate in each region of the country and then provide information and knowledge and advice to farmers and producers as to how they can adapt.”
Q: You have spoken about how a failure to implement immigration reform will hurt agriculture -- leaving a shortage of workers that will decrease farm production, curtail exports and cost farm income and jobs in the economy. Are we seeing these challenges already? How widespread of a problem is it?
Vilsack: “We’re clearly seeing the impact of a lack of a consistently stable workforce. We see it in the southeastern part of the country and in the western part of the country with crops not being harvested that were planted. We see it in decisions that producers are making to curtail production. We see it in some producers moving production outside the United States. The bottom line is America is not recognizing and realizing its fullest and complete potential in agriculture because we don’t have that stability and consistency of workforce.”
Q: The farm bill cut food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, by $8.6 billion over 10 years. Is this a fair number (at one point some House lawmakers were discussing cuts of $40 billion) or did lawmakers go too far?
Vilsack: “I’m really focused not so much on these numbers as I am on how we can do an even better job of connecting people to work opportunities within (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) that seems to be a concern of a lot of folks. So that is why I pressed very hard for the establishment of the (pilot programs) in the farm bill, up to 10 pilots, where we would do an even better job of linking work opportunities with those who are looking for work and need work, who are currently SNAP beneficiaries.
“There has been a transition and transformation in the SNAP program that I don’t think has been fully recognized by folks. In 1992 over 40 percent of SNAP beneficiaries were receiving cash welfare, today it’s 7 to 8 percent. That is a significant reduction in a relatively short amount of time. It does reflect, I think, the fact that SNAP beneficiaries who are capable of working are looking for work, are trying to work and many of them are working. Over half of the families with children actually have somebody in that family working.
“They may be working a part-time job, they may be working a minimum wage job but they are working and they just aren’t making enough to completely support their families. The SNAP program has been effective in moving people out of poverty. It’s been effective in providing short-term help and assistance for those who are unemployed for a short period of time. It has been clearly helpful to people with disabilities and senior citizens who are living on small incomes. If we can do a better job of connecting work opportunities with able-bodied folks I think you’ll see numbers come down (for those who are on SNAP.)
“This administration has made an even more concerted effort at ensuring that people who qualify for the program actually receive the benefit of the program. In 2002, just a little over 50 percent of the people who were eligible for SNAP were actually getting the program. Today that percentage is 79 percent. To me, that is one of the reasons why we’ve seen an increase in SNAP is that more people are aware of the program, and they are utilizing the program and now our challenge is to make sure the folks who are capable of work, want to work, looking for work, that we help them find an opportunity.”
Q: Increasingly, more data is being collected from farmers by agribusinesses to help growers increase their output while limiting their risk. Are agribusiness companies doing enough to protect this sensitive information being given to them by farmers? If not, what do they need to do?
Vilsack: “We think there is a tremendous opportunity here to create an agriculture that is able to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate because we understand specifically and precisely what works and what doesn’t work. I think agribusiness needs to be deeply concerned about the skepticism that most folks have about the privacy that is associated with the decisions that they make or information that is gathered on their farm.
“I think there is recognition of that. I had a chance to visit with Hugh Grant, the CEO of Monsanto, recently and we talked a little bit about the importance of ensuring that this information is used properly, for purposes of instruction as opposed to in some way, shape or form exposing individuals to an invasion of their privacy. To the extent that you can learn more about the moisture content of soil and that leads you to better seed technology which leads you to the ability to grow more with less water given the current circumstances involving drought and involving water that seems to me to be a good thing.
“To the extent that you can reduce the amount of fertilizer and chemicals that you are applying to the ground because you have a better understanding of precisely what’s happening day to day, month to month, year to year on that ground, that seems to be a good thing for the environment and it creates this whole new opportunity for new business development.”
Q: What has been the hardest part of the job of being secretary of agriculture that you didn’t foresee?
Vilsack: “I think the hardest part is making sure that people around the country appreciate and acknowledge the contribution that rural folks -- farmers, ranchers and people who live in small towns -- make to this country. I think that the contribution is significant and the value system is important and oftentimes I wish it were appreciated more. I think the conversation that takes place around agriculture is sometimes not as positive as I think it ought to be.
“Sure, there are challenges and sure there are questions and difficulties but at the end of the day this is a pretty amazing story that we have going on here and some amazing new opportunities are being created every single day in agriculture and it’s an exciting time.”
Q: You have talked about rural America, with its shrinking population, becoming less politically relevant in the country’s increasingly urban landscape. Why is rural America no longer as important as it once was? What can be done to draw attention to the role rural America plays? Why does rural America matter?
Vilsack: “I think the passage of the farm bill, finally, is a very important step in the right direction because it creates a framework ... in rebuilding the rural economy and it provides significant tools to be able do that. The relevance is a matter of population. If you have fewer people living in rural America, either as a percentage of the overall population or as a percentage of urban and suburban populations, then over time the number of people elected to state legislative seats, to congressional seats will obviously be more reflective of where people live.
“To me, what’s important is we create an exciting opportunity for rural America, that we market rural America as a place where if you are young, if you are an entrepreneur, if you are interested in starting a small manufacturing business, if you are interested in getting into (an) agriculture business, if you are interested in making a difference, rural America provides you an opportunity to do that. Those opportunities aren’t necessarily solely occurring in urban and suburban areas. I think we need to do a better job of marketing the opportunities that exist in rural America.
“And if we do, that may help to reverse the population declines that we’ve recently seen and it may help to reverse and reduce the amount of poverty that is persistent in rural America and it may create a new sense of excitement and interest in rural America.”
Q: Any plans for you to leave as agriculture secretary? Would you like to stay until the end of the Obama administration?
Vilsack: “That’s a really hard question for me to answer because, in fact, I do serve at the pleasure of the president. I enjoy this job. I love this job. It’s been a great joy to work with the USDA and the folks in rural America and for all of the country. I think we are doing really good work here. I’ve been very fortunate in my life that the next opportunity has always been a challenging, exciting one. I don’t know what that next opportunity is and I don’t know when it will surface, but I’m going to enjoy the time I have here now.”