The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack thanks Farm Bureau, asks support for biotech plan


ATLANTA — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack broke from his prepared remarks to the American Farm Bureau Federation here Monday to observe that he had come to the convention with “a heavy heart” after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and others on Saturday in Arizona.

“We need to take a minute to appreciate what we have,” Vilsack said, adding that it was hard to give a speech under the circumstances. He said, however, that he thought it fitting to thank Farm Bureau members for producing the nation’s food supply and to thank rural Americans for their contributions to American life, particularly because a disproportionate number of them serve in the military.

Vilsack noted that he is not a stranger to political violence, recalling that in 1986, a disgruntled resident opened fire with a handgun during a city council meeting in his then hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, killing the mayor and wounding two city council members. Although he did not mention it in the Farm Bureau speech, the mayor’s father and others encouraged him to run for the office.

Vilsack, who had moved to his wife’s hometown after finishing law school in the mid 1970s, was elected mayor in 1987 and went on to serve three terms before serving in the state legislature and being elected governor of Iowa.

Out of respect for the victims in Arizona, Vilsack postponed an announcement on the funding of biorefineries, and first lady Michelle Obama postponed an announcement related to her Let’s Move anti-obesity campaign.

In his general remarks, Vilsack said that American agriculture “had a pretty good year in 2010,” and noted that farm income is at a record level. He attributed that income to productivity, innovation and exports. He noted that Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller, who had been scheduled to speak at the Farm Bureau annual meeting, is in China in an attempt to reduce restrictions on U.S. beef exports.

Vilsack also said that he had gone to Mexico recently to try to reduce barriers to U.S. beef and potatoes, and said he hopes Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s proposal to address the issue of restrictions on Mexican trucks entering the United States will encourage Mexico to lift the increased tariffs it has put on American farm products in protest.

He also said he hopes Congress will act quickly on the free trade agreement with South Korea that the Obama administration has negotiated, noting that the administration is also pushing multilateral agreements. He cited the proposed TransPacific Partnership as an example of a potentially positive multilateral agreement, but did not mention the World Trade Organization Doha Round.

Vilsack also said the government needs to spend less, but to spend its money on agriculture better, citing as an example his recent announcement of payments to farmers to encourage them to use the crop insurance program efficiently. During the upcoming budget and farm bill debate, he said, “We do need to have a conversation about the safety net. We do need a safety net.”

Noting that he is expecting reports on possible changes to dairy policy in the next month, he said “our dairy farmers need his help,” noting that the number of dairy farmers has declined from 110,000 to 65,000 in 10 years.

Vilsack also appealed to Farm Bureau members to think seriously about his plan for dealing with the conflict over genetically modified crops by using environmental impact statements to create a system of buffer zones and planting and harvesting rules for these crops. All farmers – whether they grow genetically modified crops, identity preserved crops or organic crops – should be able to grow without fearing that there will be interference from the courts in their planting decisions. Vilsack said.

“This is not an easy conversation,” Vilsack concluded, adding that it would be easier for him to ignore the issue.