The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Obama's USDA: Interview with Agriculture Secretary Vilsack


First of an occasional series of U.S. Department of Agriculture interviews

In an exclusive interview with The Hagstrom Report, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said despite the Democrats’ losses in rural America in the 2010 congressional elections, he believes President Obama will do well when he runs for re-election in 2012.

Even though the president is criticized by both organic and conventional farmers for not favoring one approach to agriculture, Vilsack said farmers will recognize that the Obama administration’s attempt to aid all types of agricultural production is the best way to proceed. Vilsack also said he still enjoys his job and has no plans to leave.

Following are excerpts of the interview conducted on Jan. 14, 2011.

HAGSTROM: You were one of the first Cabinet officers confirmed. How do you feel about the last two years? What accomplishments are you happiest with?

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
VILSACK: I’m very proud of our capacity to have significant progress in a number of areas at the same time. When people outside of the Department of Agriculture think of this department, they think of, obviously, farmers and ranchers, and I’m very proud of the work we’ve done to get disaster assistance out to improve our direct payment process, so folks got their checks on a more timely basis.

I’m very proud of the work we did with dairy producers in 2009. That, you expect, but when you then take a look at all of the other mission areas where there have been significant accomplishments: in rural development, expansion of broadband, the development of a real concerted effort in biofuels, and in food safety; a significant improvement in many of our regulations to protect people and markets; in the foreign ag area, a record year in exports; in the Forest Service working on an all-lands approach that will make our forests more resilient; in the research area, starting up the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA); and in nutrition, passage of historic legislation, increasing reimbursement rates for [school meals] the first time in over 30 years. You combine that with the cultural transformation that’s under way within USDA and the work we have done on civil rights to settle outstanding claims, it’s been a very full couple of years. The folks have worked very, very hard here at the USDA.

HAGSTROM: What would you like to do in the next two years?

VILSACK: The great thing about this department is there’s still an awful lot more to do. To a certain extent, you’ve got to implement some of the actions that have been taken.

We’re going to have a farm bill that’s going to come up in 2012, and obviously, we want to continue to have a strong safety net at a time of reduced resources. USDA led the way with our reallocation of crop insurance, savings in deficit reduction, $4 billion, and there’s going to continue to have to be a real close eye on our budgets and, as we discuss the farm bill, making sure that whatever fiscal reality we face does not compromise the capacity to have a safety net that works for farmers. So that’s obviously very important, [as is] the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010. We’ll have additional announcements and additional steps in food safety to make protection of people and markets even more effective.

We will always work on rural development, helping to build bio-refineries, expanding broadband, continuing to strengthen our connection between local food producers and local consumers with “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

We have some interesting opportunities in science and technology, whether it’s figuring out how to make biofuels more efficient, new feedstocks, or continuing the dialogue that’s recently started in which we are trying to find a way to make sure that everyone who wants to farm can farm the way they want to farm, with conventional and genetically modified crops and organic crops.

There will always be work to do to expand export opportunities. There’s still barriers that need to be taken down, certainly in the beef area in particular. There are new markets to open.

We’re going to come out with a new forest planning rule, which will be important, and we’re obviously going to continue to maintain our forests. We’ve got a new budget structure that allows us to fight fires without robbing the maintenance budget of the forest, so we should be doing a better job of maintaining our forests.

There are invasive species, diseases, and pests that are often underappreciated as part of our job here but certainly not by those who are impacted negatively, economically by those.

So the work is never ending here, but what a great time to be at the Department of Agriculture, as we see a growing appreciation in this country for what farmers and ranchers do.

HAGSTROM: There are always rumors about Cabinet secretaries leaving, and there were people who wondered if you would become President Obama’s chief of staff, which you did not. Are you happy staying here?

VILSACK: I’m happy as long as the president is happy with me.

Jerry, I made the mistake not long ago at a holiday party, sitting with the president, and he asked me if I was still having fun, and I said to him, ”Mr. President, I’ve got the best job in America.” Then I remembered I was speaking to the president of the United States, and I said, “Of course, unless, sir, you have the best job.” And he laughed. He said, “No. I’m glad you’re happy with your position.”

This is going to sound corny. Every day I wake up, and I am so thankful for the honor to have this position. This is absolutely the greatest job because there’s just so much to do, and a lot of hard working people are committed to doing it.

I think we have a new spirit here. People are engaged in problem-solving. We are operating on not just one or two cylinders. We’re a four-cylinder, six-cylinder vehicle here, and I think people are excited. Even with the budget challenges, I see the attitude among folks that, we can do it, we can get in control, we can do our part.

HAGSTROM: But you must have been disappointed that cap and trade didn’t pass. What strategy will the Obama administration and USDA take towards the climate change issue now?

VILSACK: I can’t speak for the entire administration. I can speak for USDA, and I can tell you that we’re excited about trying to establish markets, what we refer to here as “ecosystem markets,” and doing the real nitty gritty work that was required to have a market that’s credible and verifiable.

Bill Hohenstein [director of the climate change program office in the office of the chief economist] and his team are working every day to try to create pilots or models that will allow us to educate farmers and ranchers and growers that there’s economic opportunity here that may not have been fully appreciated or realized. To the extent that we can make it fully appreciated and realized, that’s a major contribution we at USDA can make to this whole issue of environment, conservation, and climate. It’s a market based, incentive driven system that I think will be well received by folks in both parties.

HAGSTROM: You take a very middle-of-the-road approach promoting both “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” and the genetically modified products. A lot of people who are only on the organic side say, “That Vilsack hasn’t stopped GMOs.” Conventional farmers say, “Why are they doing that silly stuff with the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food?” How do you feel about how people react to your attempt to try to promote both?

VILSACK: People sort of have to know what I know, and they may not fully. I’m steeped in facts and statistics in this building because I’ve got a lot of people giving them to me. What I know is that the rural population as a percentage of the overall national population continues to decline. And as it declines — and we saw this recently with the census and the reallocation of congressional seats — there are fewer and fewer people in Congress who have direct life experience having lived on a farm, on a ranch, been part of a grower operation, or have lived in a small town. To me — and I say this having been raised in a city — it’s vital to the future of the country that we preserve a strong rural America. That requires people, it requires entrepreneurship, it requires innovation.

I told the president [that] the beauty of agriculture is that it actually is an affirmation of what the president is trying to do overall. The president believes that we have to have a government that spends less but spends wisely. He believes that we have to have an economy that innovates, creates, and makes things and not necessarily consumes everything. He believes that the way to building that middle class and creating new opportunities is to export the American brand of whatever it is, whether it’s cars, computers, TV sets, or agricultural products.

In agriculture, you basically see the benefits of that frame. Farmers have less debt than the vast majority of Americans because they went through a tough period of time with debt. There are certain segments of agriculture where that’s not the case, but generally speaking. They are absolutely innovators, and they are absolutely using new technologies to expand productivity. Because they have, they are able to export, and they have a surplus, a trade surplus, which brings wealth, in the case of this fiscal year projected at somewhere in the neighborhood of $41 billion.

So my theory is if we can develop strategies that allow those commercial-sized operations to succeed, because we are promoting exports and we have got an adequate safety net, and we diversify opportunities with biofuel production, for example, allowing some of those smaller middle-sized operations to have off-farm income or additional markets and at the same time we can repopulate rural communities with smaller entrepreneurial activities that are more linked perhaps to a local market, why wouldn’t we be for all of those? Can we not be efficient with our time and our resources to make sure that all are adequately supported and helped?

When people see sort of the rationale behind this, they go OK, and we’re seeing a greater acceptance of this. We’re beginning to see people see the market opportunities locally, and with fuel prices going up, the closer you can sell stuff, the better off you’re going to be.

HAGSTROM: President Obama did better in rural America as a candidate than any Democrat since Bill Clinton, but the Democrats didn’t do very well in 2010. Do you think you can get this message out there by 2012?

VILSACK: I think we can, and I think we will. The farmers that I have talked to recognize that this president and this USDA are trying to be responsive and sensitive to the problems that are out there. We put a dairy council together to try to address the volatility in the dairy market, and we certainly tried to help them out in 2009. They understand that. The export stuff — I think everyone benefits from that and is appreciative of the efforts that we’ve made there. The local production, local food is certainly sending a message to the smaller producers. The biofuel efforts to diversify feedstocks is sending a positive message. And as that occurs, at the same time we’re beginning to see the fruits of the Recovery Act in broadband expansion take root in smaller communities, I think people will understand and appreciate this is an administration that cares about those parts of the country and is actually taking positive steps to try to improve economic conditions.

I was struck by a comment that Sen. Chambliss made to the Farm Bureau, that this is as good as agriculture is seen in his lifetime. There are a lot of reasons for that and a lot of people responsible for it, starting obviously with the folks who farm, ranch, and grow. I think the administration deserves perhaps a small measure of credit for continuing to work hard, and so do members of Congress for putting in place the policies in the farm bill.

See all the stories in this series