The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Vilsack: Nation needs to talk agriculture restructuring


Reacting to concerns about grain supplies and to further cuts in farm programs in the continuing resolution to fund the government through September 30, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today that the nation needs to talk about whether American agriculture needs to be restructured to increase production and what will happen to the roles the government has been playing as budgets are cut.

“We aren’t having the right set of conversations in Washington, D.C.,” Vilsack told the North American Agricultural Journalists. “We are in a conversation about food prices and crop supplies and questions about support for biofuels." Instead of a question about whether biofuels are being "imposed" on the agricultural system, he said, the question should be, "Can the agriculture production system be designed to meet the needs of food and biofuels?"

Vilsack then cited studies by Michigan State and Penn State universities indicating that double-cropping could produce raw materials for biofuels production in addition to food.

Biofuels, he noted, are part of the Obama administration’s strategy to reduce population loss and economic problems in rural America.

“Unfortunately, we are trapped in a debate that could lead to short-changing capacity,” he added.

Second, Vilsack said, there needs to be a conversation about what role the government will play as the budget is cut. Although the secretary said he could not discuss the cuts for the remainder of 2011 in detail because he had not seen them, he did say he believed there will be a large cut in conservation.

“Will we forego the benefits of conservation? You still have water conservation issues, soil quality issues,” Vilsack asked, adding that he did not have answers to these questions but wanted to start the conversation.

Vilsack also said that even though Congress cut USDA programs, members are still asking for favors.  Money has accumulated in the account for fighting forest fires because there have not been major fires in the last two years, Vilsack said, and USDA had begun using some of that money to fight to fight the pine bark beetle, which destroys trees and creates dead timber that is susceptible to fire.

Congress cut the fire suppression account to create savings in the continuing resolution, Vilsack said, but the same day he received a bipartisan letter from 10 House members asking him to spend the money to stop the pine bark beetle.

Vilsack released a copy of the letter in which the members, led by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., wrote:

"It is our understanding that there are unobligated funds from [fiscal year]  2010, which could be used for western beetle mitigation. We have been supportive of efforts to redirect some of the unobligated [fiscal year] 2010 USFS funds toward bark beetle mitigation activities in the Rocky Mountain Region. While we are fully aware of the fiscal situation of the nation and scarce funding resources, we maintain that redirecting some of the unused funds to respond to this national emergency is an opportunity to use existing resources where they are greatly needed.”

Vilsack indicated he did not think the discussion of what the private sector should pick up should extend to the nutrition programs such as food stamps and the school lunch program.

He said he would meet later today with USDA undersecretaries to discuss the details how the agency will handle the cuts.