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Vilsack calls for farm bill, immigration reform

2012_0223_VilsackKeynote Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivers the keynote address at the Agricultural Outlook Forum 2012 today in Arlington, Va. (USDA/Bob Nichols)

By KIM de BOURBON

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today called on Congress to pass a farm bill and immigration reform in this election year, noting that in 1862 the Civil War did not stop Congress from doing two things “big and bold.”

“In 1862, the land grant university act and the Homestead Act were established by Congress in the middle of the Civil War,” Vilsack reminded a crowd of more than 2,000 attending Agriculture Outlook Forum 2012.

He repeated the reference at a news conference later in response to a question on labor and immigration reform, which he called a “divisive political issue."

Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack
“We should be deeply concerned with the ongoing stability of the workforce,” Vilsack said. “This issue is not going away anytime soon,” he said, citing incidents in Georgia where fruits and vegetables didn’t get harvested on time, and in California, where producers report it is increasingly difficult to maintain a workforce.

The secretary’s comments on immigration brought a round of applause during his keynote address, which outlined what American producers need now and in the future.

“We do not have the workforce to get the job done,” Vilsack said, calling on Congress to find the will to pass comprehensive immigration reform. “Everyone admits it is not functioning. We should be fixing it, and fixing it now.”

Vilsack also emphasized the importance of attracting and keeping the next generation of farmers.

“We need to be far more creative in crafting the next farm bill,” he said, facing two rows of university students whose essays on the topic “Agriculture as a Career” earned them spots at the forum. Future generations need a commitment from the country, he noted.

“After all, nobody – nobody – can do their job very well without food,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack also touched on barriers to transferring land to the next generation, which he said are buried in state and federal income tax codes. “We need to free up opportunities of land transfer."

Even in the face of a shrinking budget, Vilsack said, the country must recognize that American producers will continue to need:
  • Reliable sources of credit
  • Help when disaster strikes, with crop insurance premiums that are fair
  • Markets for products both here and abroad, and relief from unfair trade barriers and rising oil prices
  • Conservation assistance and flexibility
  • Continuing research, which he credited for making agriculture one of the most productive aspects of the economy.

“Research must grow if we are to meet the needs of the future,” he said.