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A visionary Vilsack is still enthused
Just when it seems that some of President Barack Obama's Cabinet members are leaving, exhausted or frustrated, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack welcomes staying on for a second term, undaunted by the challenges of running one of the federal government's largest departments with a 12% smaller budget and a Congress still stymied over the farm bill.
In an interview with Agriculture.com Thursday, Vilsack sounded optimistic about chances to offer better service to farmers and to re-energize a rural America that is losing influence in Congress and understanding with the public. Like a latter day Horace Greeley, the former small town Iowa lawyer who became the state's governor urges young people not to go West, but rural.
"Too often the message that we convey to our young people is how difficult and challenging things are in rural America," Vilsack said, "and certainly they are, but there is unlimited future in rural America to meet the moral challenge of our time, to feed not only hungry Americans but also those who hunger around the world. It's the opportunity for us to respond to more severe weather conditions and climate change. Most of that's going to be done in rural America in terms of absorbing carbon and doing our part. It's about meeting the enormous opportunities that the biobased economy creates where we literally can make virtually everything we need in an economy -- from chemicals and fuels and energy to plastics to fibers to fabrics from what we grow, what we raise. It just opens up a whole new vista, if you will, for opportunity in rural areas."
He was planning to meet Thursday with key members of the Senate Agriculture Committee on a farm bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced on Monday: "The message is that we want their assistance and help, and we want to offer our assistance and help to get this done quickly," Vilsack said.
Vilsack wasn't concerned that none of the 19 co-sponsors to Reid's bill, which is understood to be a reintroduction of the Senate bill passed last year, were Republicans.
"I think at the end of the day the votes will be there, it will be a bipartisan vote, and it will be a strong vote," he said.
A TOP PRIORITY
"What Senator Reid has done is that he's basically conveyed in very strong and unconditional terms that the farm bill, the food farm and jobs bill, is priority for the Senate in the filing of the bill," Vilsack said. "I think he recognizes that there may be tweaks and changes and modifications to what was passed last year for two reasons: One you've got new members of the Senate, people with different attitudes and different views, new members who are coming to the Senate for the first time and who want to have their say in formulating a farm bill. One of them, for example, is Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota. I'm sure she has some very strong feelings about the farm bill, and she needs to be heard. And secondly, you've got a new ranking member...Senator [Thad] Cochran, who I will be meeting with today. Senator Cochran as a southern representative may have some slightly different views about aspects of the food, farm and jobs bill and out of respect to him and particularly out of respect to his long distinguished career in the Senate, people have to listen to him as well."
Vilsack described his visits as courtesy meetings, adding that for some time he has known Heitkamp (a Democrat who follows recently retired North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad onto the Senate Ag Committee). Heitkamp is among the co-sponsors of the new Senate farm bill, along with the committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, who welcomed Reid making the bill a top priority.
Vilsack had hoped that a farm bill could be included with the fiscal cliff legislation that was passed on January 1. Instead, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who negotiated with Vice President Joe Biden over the bill, extended the 2008 Farm Bill. In the final hours, Stabenow and other ag committee leaders tried to get disaster assistance at least for livestock producers and tree crop producers and to get some energy and expiring conservation programs included in an extension, as well as a new dairy program. McConnell rejected that approach.
When asked if he had a chance to weigh in with Biden over the last-minute deal, Vilsack said Thursday:
"At the end of the day, decisions are made, but if the question is, did we encourage the Congress and the White House to look at this as an opportunity to get the farm bill done? Absolutely, but recognizing the difficulties when the Speaker of the House [John Boehner] was not interested in having it included in the package, there's not a whole lot you can do, right? And especially when you're facing milk prices potentially doubling or tripling for consumers, there was, I think, a real desire to avoid that very unfortunate consequence of inaction. Now would I have preferred to have specialty crops and disaster assistance, absolutely, but the speaker was not interested in a full-blown farm bill being attached to the fiscal cliff resolution. Fair enough. That's done. Can't cry over spilled milk here, we've got to focus on 2013 and we've got to work with our friends in Congress and get this done."
OPTIMISM ON FARM BILL
Vilsack also seems more optimistic that the House will act sometime this year on a farm bill.
"I think Chairman Lucas and Ranking Member Peterson on the House side seem to in their recent statements committed to getting something done once they have a better handle and better understanding of what the fiscal parameters will be," he said, referring to Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas and Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
"I think the House is a bit reluctant to start right now, but I think once the fiscal cliff and budget issues become clearer, that we would anticipate they will be working very quickly to get something done. So my hope is that sometime in the early part of 2013 and certainly during the calendar year 2013 that we see some action on the part of the House and the Senate," Vilsack said.
Those budget issues have two deadlines in March. The first is a March 1 requirement for Congress to agree on federal spending cuts that were delayed in the New Year's Day fiscal cliff deal. And the second is the March 26 expiration of a continuing resolution that is keeping the federal government funded.
"As part of that process it is possible that the committees of jurisdiction [including the ag committees] will receive instructions or directions from the House and the Senate to essentially reduce their budgets by a certain number and that will play into the reforms that both the Senate and the House were considering last year that called for somewhere between 23 billion and 34 billion dollars in reductions…." Vilsack said.
Vilsack suggested during the recent annual Farm Bureau meeting in Nashville that one of the reasons a farm bill wasn't passed by the House last year is the declining influence of farmers and rural America in Congress, caused in part by a shrinking rural population.
Part of Vilsack's vision for turning that around involves convincing the next generation to participate in agriculture and small town jobs in a biobased economy.
But he has a short-term vision as well that he holds out as a challenge to conventional thinking about farm bill lobbying.
"It's making sure the rest of the country understands the contribution that rural America makes," Vilsack said, "and that it's important for the rest of the country that we have a food, farm and jobs bill, because it's more than just about ag programs, it's about trade and jobs, it's about conservation and clean water, it's about outdoor recreational opportunities and business opportunities that can be created from that, it's about a new energy future for the country that's less reliant on foreign oil and more reliant on our own domestic capacities, which makes us a safer and stronger nation. When you start realizing the significance of it to your life, whether you live in a city or suburb, then maybe you understand why it's important for your representative to get to work and get this done."
"I think it's also important that we recognize in rural America that we can't do this alone, that we have to build strategic alliances," Vilsack said. "There are opportunities, for example, for us to reach out to the nutrition community, the folks who are concerned about hunger issues, and say that we are with them in their effort to make sure that every American is well fed, and they in turn can help us convince their friends and neighbors in urban and suburban areas and representatives to get the farm legislation through the process.
"And I think frankly we need to be constructively engaged even with those who disagree with us, because we can learn from each other. We can find that middle ground that allows consensus to be developed. After all, that's what we're asking our representatives to do more of," Vilsack added. "We're all tired of the partisanship and the division that takes place in politics today. Well, we have a responsibility to meet folks in the middle as well, or at least to engage them."
IN DEFENSE OF HAGEL
Vilsack also thinks the farm lobby ought to move beyond the farm bill in order to get wider recognition. At the Farm Bureau meeting he suggested that they support former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next secretary of defense.
"I think it's not far-fetched to suggest that farm groups ought to be weighing in on that nomination and supportive of that nomination," Vilsack said Thursday. "Why? Because Senator Hagel is from Nebraska. He understands the opportunities that biofuel created in his state and the Midwest. He also will be the secretary of defense that will make the determination whether or not the Navy's effort to convert half of its fuel to biofuel and renewable energy will continue. And if it continues, I can assure you that's going to create enormous opportunity for new markets and new businesses in rural America. So the secretary of defense has a direct bearing on life and opportunity in rural areas."
At USDA, Vilsack is enthusiastic about changes that still lie ahead.
"There's work that needs to be done to build out the biobased economy," he said. "We're challenging the Rural Development folks throughout USDA to finance and help 50 new biobased companies be created so that we continue to expand market opportunities in the bioeconomy. We want to challenge the advanced biofuel producers to start actually producing millions of gallons of new fuels."
ONLINE CONSERVATION PLANNING
"Later this year we hope to be able to launch a conservation streamlining project in a number of pilot states where we would be working to create the ability for our conservation folks in NRCS to actually go to a farm, actually be on the farm, work with the farmer with an iPad and be able to develop an individualized conservation plan right then and there without the necessity of going back to the office, checking the maps and coming back to the farm," he said.
And he's hoping that a new computer program may do away with waiting at Farm Service Agency offices as well.
"Over time what we hope is we'll get to a point where farmers will be able to work online, not even having to come into an office to be able to apply for various programs," he said.
When asked if he has thought about what he'll do after working as agriculture secretary, Vilsack said he hasn't.
"Well, I'm just trying to get through this week, to be honest with you," he said, laughing. "This job is such a great job, and it's so challenging and so rewarding. You're working with such great people and for such great people, that you don't need really to be thinking about what's next, because what you're doing right now is exciting, stimulating and challenging. I'm enjoying it and I think people are appreciative of the work we're trying to do in a very tough economic circumstance."
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