America Farm Bureau Federation Town Hall—Orlando, Fl.
January 10, 2016
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Well, good afternoon everybody. We are opening up our town hall forum with Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack.
And, Mr. Secretary, we appreciate you being here. You and I did this last year. We had a bit of fun, I think, and answered some questions, and we're looking forward to doing that again.
Before we get started, I want to say – and the Secretary and I have talked about this before -- that it's very important for AFBF and USDA to have a good working relationship, and we do, because the things that are in the mission areas of USDA are the things that are important to us as a farmer and ranching organization.
So we appreciate that relationship, and I appreciate working with Secretary Vilsack. We've had a lot of conversations on a lot of issues and worked on a lot of things, and I think to the benefit of American agriculture.
And I also want to thank the Secretary for coming to our convention. I think you've made just almost all of them since you've been in office, and we appreciate that, and really appreciate that relationship.
What we're going to do, ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to let the Secretary make some opening remarks here, and then we will have questions from you. We will have roving mics, and so, you know, when we get to that point, if you want to ask a question, raise your hand and the individuals with the roving mics will come to you.
So, Mr. Secretary, to open it up, the floor is yours.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, Bob, thanks very, very much, and I want to thank the American Farm Bureau Federation for the invitation to be here today.
I want to echo Bob's comments about the relationship that USDA and the American Farm Bureau Federation has had over the time that I've been Secretary. It's been a good, positive relationship, and I would be remiss if I didn't thank Bob Stallman for his personal friendship during the seven years.
I've learned a lot from Bob. We've had a good working relationship, the kind of relationship you would expect us to have. Where if there's an issue or problem, I don't think Bob hesitated to pick up the phone and give me a call or ask me to come to his office to visit; and, likewise, I did the same.
And it's been a successful relationship.
I think it's fair to say that without Farm Bureau's advocacy and aggressive efforts, we would not have had the 2014 Farm Bill. And, certainly, we have benefited, I think, from having a farm bill, whether it's the disaster payments that have been made to producers or the ARC and PLC payments that have nearly totaled $5 billion to about 1.7 million farmers.
I recognize that there's still some challenges, and I'm sure I'm going to hear about those today, and we still have work to do, but without Bob's involvement and without Farm Bureau's involvement, we wouldn't have had that farm bill, and we certainly wouldn't be as far along in the trade discussion as we are.
Farm Bureau was very important and critical to getting the Trade Promotion Authority through the Congress, which in turn allowed us to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Now we face a serious and significant effort to get this trade bill through.
You all need to understand that this is very important to agriculture. I think you recognize that, that the Asian market is the fastest growing market. It's the place where there's going to be significant growth in the middle class consumer that's going to want high quality agricultural products that American producers can provide.
It's not only important for the economic benefits to American agriculture, but it's also important for our national security. And I know that folks from rural areas understand and appreciate that issue of national security, because you all send your sons and daughters into the military service in greater numbers. So you know it's important for us to have the relationships that will enable us to develop strategic coalitions that can check the Chinese influence, for example, in Asia to allow us to make sure that there's a balance in that part of the world. It's going to make a safer and a better place.
Certainly worked with Bob on disaster assistance and help. We've had some challenges in that area, whether it's drought in California or recently with our poultry and turkey industry with the AI. We're, knocking on wood, hoping it doesn't come back, but want to be better prepared for it if it does.
All of these things involve a close important relationship between the USDA and Farm Bureau. I want to encourage you all to take a look at our results effort. I now appreciate Farm Bureau's promotion of that, where each month during 2016, we're going to highlight the work that we collaboratively have done together. This month, it is about celebrating the contribution that farmers and ranchers and producers make to the country, and USDA's help and assistance.
I want to work with you on future challenges, whether it's dealing with the challenge of weather in a changing climate or a trade issue or dealing with pests and diseases that continue to prove challenging.
We're here in Florida, and certainly citrus greening is something that we're deeply concerned about. It really puts, I think, a premium on the importance of research, and we need to encourage our Congress to continue to fund and invest in research.
So, Bob, I want to thank you for your friendship. I want to thank you specifically for your work on the China Garden project. It's very important to our relationship with China. It's our number one and number two trading partner. And Bob has been a -- has just been incredibly active and proactive in that effort, and that was not an easy task that I asked him to undertake. And he has taken it with grace and a passion and a level of energy that hopefully we can duplicate in the new chairman.
So I appreciate the opportunity to be here today and look forward to visiting with the folks in response to your questions.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary.
Well, what's on your mind? Does someone have a question?
Okay. Who has the mics? Right here.
CLARK HINSDALE, VERMONT FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Hi, my name is Clark Hinsdale from Vermont, Mr. Secretary. We've had the opportunity to meet when you've been up, and helped to celebrate the additional funding for water quality initiatives.
I want to ask you about managing change. I want to ask you, out of your years of experience as being Secretary, how you view the government's role in trying to manage change in a way that's increasing speed of technology? Is it making investments that farmers and others make irrelevant before the investment is even paid for? And along the lines of managing change, whether or not you see any need in the future to be looking at supply management in the dairy industry to help manage change?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, I appreciate the question.
I was in Vermont earlier this week making an announcement on an energy efficiency effort that will help farmers become more energy efficient and provide resources and help through the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation. The largest single investment we've made in that program in the history of the program was made in Vermont this week.
Look, I always tell our team at USDA, you have a question -- you have a challenge, you have a choice. You can either manage change or be managed by change. The one certainty that we all confront is that change is going to occur. We certainly have seen it in agriculture, and I think sometimes people outside of agriculture fail to recognize how innovative and change oriented agriculture is, in fact.
We wouldn't see one American farmer now being able to feed 155 people with what's being produced without those farmers, ranchers, and producers embracing change, embracing technology, and using it to increase productivity. So I think American agriculture has been an industry that has been proactive towards change.
And that may not be the perception that people outside of agriculture have. And so one thing I think we need to do is, we need to make sure that we are marketing our willingness to change and embracing change. I think we need to make a more concerted effort in the area of research.
There is tremendous work that's being done in agricultural research. I asked our team at ARS and NIFA to put together a list of things that have occurred in the last couple of years in agricultural research.
95 percent, Bob, of the allergens in peanuts have been removed as a result of research. What a tremendous opportunity that is for the peanut industry, and particularly for those families whose children suffer from a peanut allergy. That may be a thing of the past because of change and agriculture's willingness to invest in research.
But we have a challenge in terms of making sure that agricultural research is considered at the same level as some of our healthcare research. And I think I just shared with several of your potential candidates for president, we had a meeting, and I said, you know, it's -- I had a conversation with our ARS director one day, and I said, you know, those NIH guys, they get so much money. I mean, they're talking about curing cancer and curing these diseases. They can make a real case up there in Congress.
And she looked at me and she said, Mr. Secretary, cure cancer? We can prevent it with agriculture and food. And it hadn't occurred to me that that's a way in which we could potentially market research in agriculture, is that we have the capacity, potentially, to prevent diseases based on how agriculture is conducted.
So I think we have to manage change rather than be managed by it. I think one way to do that is investing in research.
On the dairy industry, you know, look, this is a -- you know, the one thing I have learned in seven years is how complex dairy issues are. You know, I want to give what we've done with the Margin Protection Program a little more time to see if it works. And I understand and appreciate that there is a glitch in this in terms of one-size-fits-all approach in terms of the feed cost and so forth, that it really would be an even better, stronger, and perhaps more participatory program if we could regionalize that feed calculation. The law doesn't allow us to do that, but that's one thing I think we're learning through this process, that if it did, we'd probably see better utilization of that program, and we're obviously going to keep an eye on this.
I asked my team just the other day whether we anticipate getting below $8, $6, and $4. They don't anticipate getting to the lowest levels. We had some payments out on the $8 level. So I'm not sure that we're necessarily going to have to go on the market and purchase milk products, but we'll be prepared to do that if we have to. So let's give that a chance, let's see if that works, and perhaps with a tweak here or there, we can make it an even stronger program.
I think you get to a supply side, there are parts of the American dairy industry that would love that, and then there are parts of American dairy industry that would say, what the heck are you doing? So we're trying to find that elusive middle ground that works as well as possible for everybody.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. We have another question right down here.
MIKE FREEZE, ARKANSAS FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Mr. Secretary, I'm Mike Freeze. I'm a fish farmer from Arkansas. And, likewise, we've met several times when you've come to our state.
USDA Veterinary Services is the federal agency that's tasked with regulating animal diseases nationally in our country, and I personally think they do a very good job. In the last Congress, and we believe probably in this next Congress, legislation was introduced, and we believe will be introduced, that will allow U.S. Fish and Wildlife to regulate the interstate movement of animal diseases. And I'm curious as to your viewpoints -- and this would be under the injurious species provision of the Lacey Act. And I'm curious as to your views on this, whether you think we need two federal agencies regulating the same animal diseases and how you all would view, you know, protection of your turf.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: You know, when you were asking that question, the thought occurred to me that we have 15 different federal agencies that are involved in food safety. I happen to think that that's probably 14 too many. It would probably be easier and better if we had a single agency that was sort of committed to that.
In this circumstance, I can't quite figure out why there would be necessarily an improvement. I think APHIS does do a good job. I would say this: If you're going to make a change, then there has to be an understanding of how those who will be affected by that change will see the change and how they will view it. Will they view it as an improvement to a current circumstance or will they view it as a step back, as an additional regulatory burden as something that they are not excited about?
I know the relationship that APHIS has with producers, and I think it's a pretty solid one, and I think we saw a great test of it, tragically and unfortunately, this last spring with AI. APHIS stepped up, came in with help. We'll improve that if we ever have to deal with it again, but I think on balance, given the magnitude of what we faced, APHIS did a pretty doggone job, and I think they've got the confidence and faith in the folks that they're working with.
So, you know, it's the old adage of, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'm not sure what's broken and I'm not sure how people would view that change, whether they would see it as a positive. I suspect perhaps not. And if that's the case, then I don't quite understand, what's the motivation behind it? If the folks who are going to be impacted don't want it and the folks who are currently doing it are doing an okay job, why change?
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. Down here.
MIKE SPRADLING, OKLAHOMA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for coming to Orlando and giving us an opportunity on a one on one. I'm Mike Spradling, a pecan and cattle and equine producer in Oklahoma.
Since 2013, the 13 major producing states of pecans have been working very hard and diligently to have a federal marketing order representing our industry. Do you have any update on whether or not the referendum will occur in 2016?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That's a great question, and I'm -- the true answer is I'm not certain, but I will find out and get back to you. I think the goal for 2016 for us is to try to finish as much work as has been started in this Administration so that the next administration starts with kind of a clean slate. Now, there's some things that, frankly, we're not going to be able to get done that have been started, but I think there's several marketing order opportunities that potentially could get fixed and concluded one way or the other in 2016. And our goal is to try to make sure that we have as clean a deck, if you will, in the next administration.
So let me check on this, and I will try -- if you can -- Malcolm is going to give you his card. If you would just e-mail Malcolm, we'll get a specific answer to you very, very shortly.
I apologize for not knowing that. I should have known that.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: That's good customer service, Mr. Secretary, right there.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, that's what Malcolm is paid the big bucks for; or maybe not the big bucks.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: All right. Another question down here.
KURT ALSTEDE, NEW JERSEY FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being here today. Kurt Alstede, Chester, New Jersey, fruit and vegetable grower.
Like most fruit and vegetable growers, we use a tremendous amount of labor, rely on H-2A. I'm sure you're familiar with how challenging that program is to us. A coalition put together a really great alternative for a new guest worker program. We seem like we had it so many times within our grasp and lost it. Can you give us an update as to whether we might expect some sort of guest worker reform during the balance of your tenure?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: I think there is a growing recognition, and the folks – you all have done a good job of explaining to folks in the Labor Department that there's a problem with the current program. That was not necessarily the case. You may have been aware of it, but a couple years ago I'm not sure that they were, so I think there's a recognition of the concerns.
I haven't talked to Tom Perez recently about H-2A. My focus has been primarily on trying to get a comprehensive immigration program through, because at the end of the day, I believe that's the long-term solution for agriculture. And I think that would ultimately result in a much more improved H-2A system, if we had comprehensive immigration reform, but I think they're working on it. And we certainly have encouraged them to improve the system, and we've raised awareness of what happens if they -- if there isn't adequate labor.
We had -- you know, there are two challenges with labor: One is, today, not having access; and, two, is the aging nature of those who are currently in that labor force. And we're concerned about both of those issues. And, again, I think the long-term answer is comprehensive immigration reform.
Now, look, folks, that's not easy -- these are not easy issues to deal with politically. There are those who can get people stirred up about all this, and I think, frankly, we have to continue to do a good job of educating people about the important role that labor plays in agriculture.
You know, again, Bob, I don't think that people understand and appreciate how important that labor is to your operation and how important it is to fruit and vegetable producers. It's critically important.
And if you don't have it, you can't harvest it or you can't grow it or you can't pick it or you don't pick it in the right -- at the right time. It impacts the bottom line. It impacts access to fruits and vegetables that we're trying to encourage folks in this country to eat more of and use more of. And so we're going to continue to use 2016 as a way of educating people about, this is an issue that's got to get resolved. It can't get pushed down the pike any longer, because agriculture is suffering.
Estimates 70 percent of the work force probably immigrant, and a good percentage of that probably are here, but maybe they didn't get here legally. There needs to be a process in which people come out of the shadows. There needs to be -- in my view, there needs to be a process in which people acknowledge that they didn't get here the right way. And the way you acknowledge that in this country is you pay a fine. You accept some responsibility. You go to the back of the line, assuming you haven't violated laws and that kind of thing and created problems. You work your way to a legitimate role in society and you contribute your fair share to society.
That seems to me to be the way to do this long term. And hopefully after the 2016 elections, people will get serious about this issue and get it resolved. Because if they don't, as difficult as the problem you've got now, you can improve the H-2A system, I don't think that will be enough. I think you'll ultimately have such a shortage of workers that agriculture won't be as productive as it needs to be at a time when we face this increasing world population and increasing demand for what you're growing.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Let's see. Let's take this young lady right back here first, and then we can come back over here.
BETTY JO TOMPKINS, FLORIDA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Hello, Mr. Secretary. I'm Betty Jo Tompkins, executive director of the Hillsborough County Soil and Water Conservation District located in Tampa, Florida.
We realize that the critical need in conservation is to educate the total public. The agricultural community already knows the importance of soil and water conservation. But in our effort to teach the urban and suburban populations, we're conducting something called the Hillsborough 100. It'll be April 22nd, Earth Day, 2017, to April 28th, Arbor Day, 2017. This is a one-week period in which we're going to do 100 conservation projects within our single county. We already have the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at UF, Hillsborough Extension, Ag in the Classroom, and numerous other groups; civic clubs, children's groups, 4-H, FFA, on and on and on.
How do we engage USDA to get involved with us in this total commitment to conservation and to protecting our natural resources now and in the future? Thank you.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, that's a great question, and I think the quick answer is, our NRCS folks should be working hand in glove with what you're doing.
And I appreciate you making reference to Ag in the Classroom, because that's another thing that I want to thank Bob for. In addition to the Farmer and Rancher Alliance that he was critically important in leading, creating opportunities for us to educate young people about the importance of agriculture and giving the rest of the country a unified voice in terms of agriculture. Very, very important.
That's an exciting opportunity. You know, it's the kind of thing that ought to be replicated in other parts of the country, so NRCS, absolutely.
BETTY JO TOMPKINS, FLORIDA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: To just say that our goal is to create the template so this can be re-created throughout Florida and the United States. And we believe -- it's amazing. We haven't officially announced the kickoff, it will happen in a couple weeks, and we have a large percentage of our organizations, as well as profit enterprises, that are signing on to do these projects. It has taken off like a fire.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, one of the suggestions I would make is to take a look at the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. It sounds to me like you've developed a lot of coalitions and a lot of partners. It sounds as if you could have a profound impact on a watershed. It's the kind of thing that we want to help finance. You might want to take a look at the Regional Conservation Partnership Program and make an application for the program through RCPP.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. I had -- right here, I had him -- had his hand up.
JOE WOOD, MARYLAND FARM BUREAU MEMBER: I'm Joe Wood from Maryland. We have a small farm that we operate on the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
I was wondering what we can expect from your department as far as not being overregulated so we can continue farming instead of going out of business?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, USDA sees itself as trying to help and assist those who have regulatory responsibilities, perhaps from some other federal agency. And we've been working with producers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is the largest -- one of the largest, if not the largest single watershed in the world, to try to provide assistance and help in the following ways: One, cost share for conservation practices that are being embraced; two, providing technical information for producers so that they know what conservation practices will be the most effective.
Three, doing some research projects and some assessment of our conservation efforts that is allowing us to make the case that, A, conservation is working in that -- in that watershed area; and, B, that if we combine conservation practices -- in other words, if we do multiple conservation practices -- you can have much more profound impact and effect.
And then finally, the development of what we refer to as an ecosystem market. To the extent that you can then measure, verify, and quantify a conservation result, you can sell that conservation practice, if you will, to another regulated industry or to a corporation that's interested in social welfare to invest in conservation.
We may not be seeing that in the Chesapeake Bay area, but we recently had an event with Chevrolet where they purchased some carbon credits on a working ranch in the Dakotas, so I know that there are ecosystem markets working in several of the states in the Chesapeake watershed area. That's another opportunity that we are helping to fund through our Conservation Innovation Grant Program, so multiple ways in which we can provide help and assistance.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. Back here standing up.
BILL BERGIN, MONTANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Bill Bergen from Montana. We have a ranch in Montana, and I'm on the volunteer fire department.
Currently, some of our fires are around 35, 40,000 acres, and the Hammonds is a hot topic right now in Oregon. And my question has to do with, why are they being charged for terrorism and why are they being sentenced back to a second penalty page of their deal? As a rancher, that scares me.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, I'm not well versed in precisely what has is going on with those folks because it involves a different federal agency, so let me try to respond to your question in a broader way, if I might.
Obviously, we control the Forest Service at USDA, and the Forest Service provides leasing opportunities. And part of the challenge has been, as a result of the condition of the forest, which is a result of a multitude of sins, if you will, that we have had a declining health in our forests, which have made it a little bit more difficult for us to do the leasing that people want us to do. So part of our challenge, I think, is to explain that to people so that they understand and appreciate why there may be restrictions on leasing opportunities.
Secondly, it's to do a better job of restoring and making more resilient those forests so that we can expand opportunity, not contract opportunity.
The reason we're having difficulty -- and I can't speak for the Interior Department, but the reason we're having difficulty is that 62 percent of the Forest Service budget is being spent -- was being spent this year for fire suppression; 62 percent. In 1995, that number would have been 16 percent, so there's been a tremendous expansion of fire suppression costs. And the result of that is that we're taking away from the very money that would be used to make those forests more resilient, which would allow us to do more leasing, which would satisfy the ranchers in a much more beneficial way.
We've asked Congress to fix this. We've asked them on multiple occasions. What we end up doing every fire season is we end up borrowing money from all those other accounts to put the fires out because Congress doesn't appropriate adequate resources within our budget. We're the only agency dealing with emergency situations that has to fund the emergency out of our operating budget.
We've suggested to Congress that they take the 1 to 2 percent of fires that cost 30 percent of our budget and treat them as the natural disasters they are. They're started by lightning. In most cases, it's trees that are dead because of a beetle or drought or whatever. It's absolutely a natural disaster in the same way that a hurricane is, a tornado is, a flood is. We treat those things through FEMA.
We think that those large fires, those expensive fires should be treated that way. That would limit the amount of money that we're spending for fire suppression out of our operating budget. It would allow us to use the resilience and restoration money for the purpose for which it is intended, we'd have certainty in that budget, we would invest more, we'd do a better job, and you would be a bit happier than you are today.
And we got really close in the omnibus bill. A couple of Senators decided they wanted to do it a little differently. We're going to keep going back. But here's one thing I have told folks: I'm tired of borrowing money and I'm tired of, basically, bailing Congress out on this. We're not going to borrow money this year.
Go ahead. I think he wants --
BILL BERGIN, MONTANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: If I were to start a backfire and it got out of control, would I be sentenced as a terrorist in prison?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well -- BILL BERGIN, MONTANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: They were charged.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: I'm not an expert on this, sir, so I don't want to get myself or you or me or the two of us in trouble here.
You know, I think that we like to work with folks in terms of using fire appropriately as a management tool, and we're learning how to do that and we're trying to do a better job of it. But it gets ultimately back to, we're not going to be able to do as much of that as you want us to do without the resources to make sure that there are enough personnel, et cetera, to prevent a problem that can occur if it gets out of control.
So it gets -- always gets back to the budget, and it's very frustrating when you know what the solution is, and there's a majority of people in Congress that would vote for it, but it doesn't get to Congress. And it's very -- it's very reminiscent of the 2014 Farm Bill discussion, where everybody knew we needed a farm bill, there were going to be enough people to vote for it, but the doggone thing couldn't get on the board to allow people to vote for it until the Farm Bureau and other groups pushed Congress to the point where they finally got something done.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. Let's have another question.
We need to spread out here. We're getting them all from over here.
Yes, ma'am. The young lady here.
BETHANY BUTTERFIELD, LOUISIANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Hi, my name is Bethany Butterfield. I'm a young farmer from Louisiana.
We all know that there is a widening age gap in agriculture and that that is something that we should be concerned about and that we need to make more efforts to involve young people in agriculture.
And so I wanted to ask you specifically about the Young Farmer Success Act. I'm not sure if you're aware of it, but it's basically an attempt to add -- to treat farming as public service and to add it as part of the student loan forgiveness program for people who are involved in agriculture for a number of years. And if you can't give me an update on that, or your department's opinion on that, I'd like to hear what your department's plans are for involving more young people in agriculture.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That's a great question, and you are, as they say, one of a million. There are roughly a million women in agriculture today, and we want to see, and will likely see, an increased number of women in agriculture, and it is one of the strategies that we're focused on in trying to deal with the very issue that you've addressed.
I don't know why she was looking at you, Bob, when she was talking about that age gap, but she wasn't looking at me.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: I'm just the victim here.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: But it is true. The average age of the farmer is creeping up. It's now -- average is 58. And depending upon what part of the country you're from, it could be significantly higher than that. It's something we take very seriously.
The act that you referred to, the department doesn't have a position on it, but I'll tell you my personal view about it. It makes sense to me. I don't know how we could craft it in a way that provided help and assistance, but at the end of the day, we have to have multiple strategies for helping young people deal with the rising cost of college.
Because, frankly, my wife was looking at some papers from her dad who passed away a couple years ago, and she pulled out the bill for her college; one semester, 1,800 bucks. I mean, you couldn't -- shoot, you couldn't get a week of college for that now. I mean, it's just amazingly expensive, so we have got to have strategies to be able to make sure that kids don't get prevented from pursuing education. And we want to make sure that they take advantage of agricultural opportunities, because there are a growing number of business and job and opportunities on the farm. So it sounds like a good idea, and we ought to be looking at that, along with a number of other things.
I want you to take a look at our website. We just launched a month or so ago our Beginning Farmer and Rancher website. We retooled it. And now, basically, what you can do is you can go online and you can basically say, I want to be a farmer in this part of the country, I want to farm and grow this commodity or this specialty crop, and I want to do it on so many acres. You plug all that information in, and then we will provide you with a personalized plan of how USDA can provide help and assistance.
It might be a microloan. It may be a farmer ownership or operating loan. It may be something with NRCS and the conservation benefits that are now being made available to younger farmers and beginning farmers where they don't have to come up with a cost share quite as quickly as a more mature operation.It may be the benefits of crop insurance where we're providing a little extra boost for younger farmers so that the premiums aren't quite as steep. There are a series of things that you as a beginning farmer could access from that web page.
And we are also working very closely with returning veterans. We've had over a million of these young people returning from places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Many of them came from rural areas. There is a nurturing aspect of farming, which we think is quite healthy. Especially if you've been confronted with the horrors of war, farming could potentially be rehabilitative, and so we're encouraging and working with a number of groups that are trying to connect veterans to these programs at USDA.
I would say, and I always say in response to a question like this, that there are some things that the government generally could do in addition to the student loan program you announced. You know, frankly, there's not an incentive in the income tax structure and system for those who are absentee owners of land -- those who aren't actually farmers, but own farm land -- to essentially consider selling it or making it available to beginning farmers.
You know, if your farm appreciates in value, if you were to sell it while you're alive, you get hit with a tax. If you die owning it, you get a stepped-up basis. There ought to be something we can do on the income tax side.
And one thing we've begun to do at USDA is when we modify or close a delinquent -- an older lab that's no longer in service -- we did this recently at Florida A&M. It was about 3,000 acres that was associated with that ARS facility, and by law we have to provide it, opportunity for the university to have access to that land. We're now putting a condition on the access to land. You can have it, you don't have to pay for it, but you do have to use it in a way that advances the cause of beginning farmers. So our hope is that Florida A&M will use this in a way to make land available.
The other thing we could look at, our military installations that are surrounded by farmland. Instead of always getting the highest and best rent for that land, maybe they could look at ways in which they could incent beginning farmers at a discounted rate, because at the end of the day, it would be beneficial to the country at large.
Lots of things going on in that space.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. Yeah, I'll turn it around a little bit here and look on this side maybe.
WALT HAGOOD, TEXAS FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Thank you.
Mr. Secretary, thank you for being here today. Appreciate it very much. I'm Walt Hagood, and I'm a cotton farmer from Texas, and I think you probably know where I'm headed here.
I also serve on a community bank board, and there's a lot of people back in -- well, all across the Cotton Belt that is very anxious to learn a little bit more about if there's going to be some help with a safety net for the cottonseed program. Could you speak on that, please, sir?
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: I can, and I'll try to be as helpful as I can.
This is a complicated issue, and for the benefit of the audience who may not be fully aware of this, start with the proposition that the cotton farmers are suffering right now in a fairly significant way.
In the past, there were safety net programs that came under scrutiny and question in a variety of different forums, including the trade forum. And so when the 2014 Farm Bill was crafted, cotton basically went in a different -- a slightly different direction with its -- with its tax program. Unfortunately, this tax program doesn't provide the kind of help and assistance today that cotton producers need, so there's an effort to try to look and see whether -- what else cottonseed can be considered as part of a program commodity.
There are some serious -- and I'll be honest with you, there's some serious legal issues involved with that. We're trying to figure out a way in which we can provide help and assistance, and we're going to make sure that we do everything we possibly can. And if there are road blocks or legislative problems, we're going to ask Congress to help us remove some of those barriers.
There are a couple of ways we could do this, but many of them, there are statutory prohibitions in terms of us being able to do something. They could be easily fixed by Congress, and we're going to, perhaps, give them a list of options. In the meantime, we're going to continue to look for ways in which we can provide help and assistance.
And we know all of us are under the gun to get something -- to get a message out to cotton growers that we want to help. I want you to know, we want to help. It may take a partnership between us and Congress to be able to get the kind of help that is really important and really sufficient, but we're going to do everything we can.
My heart goes out to those producers. I know it's tough. Deputy Secretary Harden is from Georgia, and she just went back home for the holidays and she came back with a series of stories about this. We know it's tough.
And this is -- you know, this is a tough situation for us, because we want to help, but in helping, you want to make sure that you don't necessarily create difficulties for other producers on other commodities. You don't want to create a situation where you open up an opportunity for people to be critical of farmers. You certainly don't want to reopen the Brazilian cotton case and have them begin to retaliate against other entities in agriculture. So it's complicated, and we're trying to figure out how to weave through that complicated road.
We want to get to a place where we can help, and I'm committed to getting there. I may need some help to get to where I want to be, and hopefully Congress will be willing to do that. But if they aren't or can't, we'll do whatever we legally can do to the level we can do it to try to provide help.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Okay. Another question.
Okay. We'll go right here, and then we'll come over here.
BILL WILKINS, OHIO FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for spending time with us.
My name is Bill Wilkins. I'm from Ohio. I raise corn, soybeans, and wheat. I've been a farmer all my life.
From your perspective, you see a lot of things and so on. Can you maybe address some of the largest challenges you see facing the American farmer today and what we as farmers can do to help that or negate that?
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: That's a good question.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That's a great question, and I have a card that's going to help me try to answer it fully.
Start with the opportunity that is also a challenge. The world population continues to grow and somebody has to feed that population. The level of production globally that's going to be required to feed 9, 10 billion people in the next 25 to 30 to 40 years when this young lady is in the farming business will require as much production increase and as much innovation in the next 40 years as we've seen in the previous 10,000 years.
All right. So that's an enormous challenge. If that weren't difficult enough, you're doing it at a time when we're seeing weather patterns that are more intense; stronger storms, longer droughts, more flooding, which creates a complexity to the -- to the challenge. On top of that, you've got the aging nature of the farming population. On top of that, you have what I refer to as the regulatory disconnect between farmers and the rest of the country.
And this is going to be a really hard concept to explain. It's the kind of thing that I could explain it probably better if there were like six or seven of us in a room. Because I've got, you know, hundreds of people here, I want you to think about this.
There are so few farmers in this country today and there are so many people who are generations removed from farming, that the perception of all of us in this room and this arena today about farming I think is much different than the perception that people in cities have about the people in this room.
I think every person in this room, regardless of the size of your operation, from the organic guy that's got 10 acres to somebody who's got 10,000 acres, I think everybody looks at themselves as a family farmer and thinks of themselves as part of a generation of people who have worked the land, and is proud of that.
They don't see themselves as a business, really. They don't see themselves -- I mean, they know that there's a business aspect to this, but that's not how they perceive themselves. I don't think that's how you perceive yourself. I don't think that's how farmers perceive themselves. They perceive themselves as people who work the land and what their daddy and granddaddy did, right?
They don't see themselves as an industry. They don't see themselves as an industrial complex, like a factory, right, or a big, huge chemical plant. They don't see themselves that way.
But because of the disconnect that's occurred because you've been so incredibly productive, we have fewer people working the land today, there's this disconnect between those of us who see ourselves as family farmers and the rest of the country that sees us as businesses, as industry, as industrial, as factory farms. You name the -- you take the term.
When you have that mentality, then it's fairly easy to say, Well, you should be regulated. That business, that industry should do X, Y, and Z, because that's what businesses and industries do. Meanwhile, the practical application of that on the ground, on the farm, out in the countryside, really hard, if not impossible. That regulatory disconnect is a real challenge.
Now, the solution to those three problems: One is we've got to equip farmers with the capacity to be more productive, which means increasing research and making sure that that research gets to producers and gets in a way that they can utilize as quickly as possible.
That's one of the frustrations we have, for example, in biotech with China. It may seem like there's a disconnect between what China does and what you can do in the farm in Ohio, but the reality is if China doesn't sign off on biotech traits, it's very hard for the companies in the U.S. to sell that trait to you because they don't want to get in a circumstance where they can't trade, right, so it becomes a global challenge. So we need to work to synchronize China's efforts and we need to create a regulatory process in the U.S. that makes sure that we do the proper checks, but to do it in a way that is as expeditious as possible.
I'm proud to say we've gone from, in some cases, nine years of review to about 18 months in this Administration, and we're -- you know, we're pretty proud of that fact, that we've streamlined without sacrificing the quality of the review.
On climate and weather, we need to provide producers with the tools to allow them to adapt and mitigate. And that's why we've been establishing the climate hubs. That's why we're providing assessments and information. That's why we've created the ten building blocks that will reduce carbon emissions related to agriculture, so agriculture can be part of the solution and not perceived to be part of the problem.
We need to facilitate trade. I can't tell you how important that is, because one of the ways in which you deal with making sure food gets to where it needs to be is that you have a trading system that allows for exchanges of goods in a relatively frictionless way. That requires trade agreements. Those TPP agreements, very, very important to agriculture. It sends a strong message about the importance of trade in meeting this challenge.
On the regulatory side, I think it is about continuing to do what the Farmer and Rancher Alliance has started. I think it's continuing to do Ag in the Classroom so that it's not just in small towns or rural settings where kids are sort of educated about what happens on a farm, but you take it right back into the middle of the city and you make sure those city kids have that understanding.
And one of the things that's happening, I think, in a lot of major cities is that all of a sudden this concept of urban agriculture has come into force, and now all of a sudden people begin to realize, Well, shoot, you know, if it doesn't rain, we don't have a crop; or these pesky beetles or pesky bugs or whatever, they're destroying the crop. What do we do about that? They're now beginning to have a better understanding of the risks. It's going to take time. It's going to take time.
And I think future secretaries will have to see this as part of their responsibility to continue trying to talk to urban folks about the importance of agriculture. And I know it's a long answer to your question, and I apologize, but this is -- this is a really important question.
Here's what I say when I talk to urban folks: I talk about the risk of farming, and I say, you know what, you can be the greatest football player in the world or the greatest baseball player in the world, and you'll fail -- baseball, you can fail 70 percent of the time and still be considered an all-star, and you get paid tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars. You can be the greatest farmer in the world, you can do everything right, if mother nature doesn't cooperate, you're going to bat zero through no fault of yours. People need to understand that.
Secondly, they need to understand that the benefits that agriculture provides, it's not just the food, it's the incredible diversity of food that we enjoy in this country. It's the amazing affordability of the food that we enjoy in this country. People do not realize that food is relatively inexpensive in this country as a percentage of our paychecks and income, and it's a tremendous advantage we have in our economy, and we need to tout more of that.
And then this is the one that people don't think about: Everybody in this audience is farming or related to farming, but outside of this convention area, there are millions of people working other jobs. There are teachers and doctors and lawyers and engineers and construction people and plumbers, and you name it. Do they ever ask themselves, Well, why is it that I had the freedom to grow up thinking I could be a lawyer? Well, it was because I didn't have to worry about where my food came from. It never, ever occurred to me that I would have to be a farmer because somebody else was doing that job, and doing it better than I would ever be able to do it. And it was relatively easy for me to get the food for my family, so I could say, well, shoot, I think going to be a lawyer. I think I'm going to be a mayor. I think I'll run for the state senate. I think I'll be a governor. I couldn't do that 100 years ago. I would have had to think about, well, how am I going to feed my family?
So you all, as incredibly productive and amazing as you are, have freed the rest of us to do whatever we dream about doing. We never talk about that in terms of farming. We talk about it in terms of the American dream. We talk about it in terms of what a great country this is. The reason this is a great country, in part, is because we have great farmers.
Think about it. Look at the rest of the world. Trust me, if the agricultural industry or the agricultural calling in the Middle East was as productive as it is here, my guess is we would not have anywhere near the challenges we face in the world today. Agriculture is just incredibly important to this country, but we don't market it and talk about it, I think, in a way.
And then finally, I mentioned this earlier: I just -- my heart goes out to rural families, because they put their sons and daughters in the military, military service, in a significantly higher percentage, and they do because people growing up in these small towns or on these farms and ranches, they understand that it's something that gives something to you, the land gives to you, you've got to give something back to it. Country gives something to you, freedom, liberty, et cetera, you've got to give something back, and that value system is so engrained.
So when you start talking about agriculture that way, then maybe we'll have a better relationship in this country. Maybe we'll find common ground. Maybe we won't have that disconnect from regulatory perspective, better understanding. Maybe we'll provide additional research money so that you all can be productive and continue to help us be the greatest nation on earth.
That's how I'd answer that question.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Mr. Secretary, that was an outstanding answer to a good question. We appreciate that.
I think we have time for two more questions. I promised this young lady over here that she could have the mic, and then I think I have a question over here.
GLORIA DEL GRECO, INDIANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Yeah. My name is Gloria Del Greco, I'm from Indiana, and I have a USDA question.
Recently, you just came out with a new food guide. You fund the nutrition education program for low income families, you fund community wellness coordinators, and yet with food stamps, you will not tell them that they can't buy soda pop and junk food with their dollars when people are educating them on good food, and yet they're spending their money on junk food.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: That's a question I get in a number of different venues, and I'll do my best to try to answer it.
First of all, we've researched SNAP families and the rest of America and asked the question whether or not SNAP families purchase food in food categories differently than the rest of America. Turns out, there's not much difference between what SNAP families purchase and what the rest of us purchase.
Secondly, there are about 300,000 items in a grocery store, and there are technological challenges, and I'll give you an example. My favorite example is Shredded Wheat.
I hope I don't offend anybody.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: That's one of my favorites, Mr. Secretary.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, see, I'm going to offend Bob.
I don't know of a person who eats Shredded Wheat with nothing on it except milk.
You don't put anything on Shredded Wheat, Bob?
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: No.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: You don't put any sugar on it? Come on.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: A little Splenda maybe.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Yeah. Yeah. Okay.
I mean, nobody eats Shredded Wheat by itself, but -- so Shredded Wheat said, Okay, fine, we'll put sugar -- we'll create sugar Shredded Wheat. And then people said, well, you know, you've got to be careful about that, so they created reduced sugar Shredded Wheat. And I always assumed that the reduced sugar Shredded Wheat would be better for you than the sugar shredded wheat, but, in fact, the reason they can reduce the sugar is they increase the salt, sodium, so it's not better for you.
The question is, how you would distinguish -- as you're checking the food out, how you would distinguish between items like that in terms of trying to -- in trying to provide a restriction.
On the sugar drinks, the difference would be, I mean, how many -- are there any apple producers in this audience?
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Oh, I know we have some.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Orange juice? Orange juice producers? No orange juice producers? Really? Seriously? Wow.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: There's one.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: All right. The fruit content -- the sugar content in fruit juice is often greater than or equal to the sugar content in a lot of these sodas. You can't distinguish between the two, so it's a technological challenge, all right? It's a technological challenge.
We tried to create a pilot project to see how this would work. We proposed doing it in a couple of boroughs in New York City. The mayor at the time didn't -- he wanted to do the entire city, we just didn't feel that we could do that, so we're looking at this issue. We understand your frustration.
It's also a circumstance and situation where we really, frankly, don't want to stigmatize people. You know, a lot of these folks are senior citizens. A substantial -- about 80 percent of them are senior citizens, people with disabilities, and folks who are actually in the work force who are working a part-time or full-time job.
The 20 percent who aren't, in many states and an increasing number of states, now have the responsibility of either going to school or working or their benefits are limited to 90 days every three years. A lot of people don't realize that.
So, you know, it's an issue, we're looking at it, but there are some reasons why it's been a little harder than you might think to make that distinction.
She wants to comment.
GLORIA DEL GRECO, INDIANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Okay. You could regulate, though, what they get through the WIC program. You could tell them what kind of cereals they can buy, what kind of juice they can buy, what kind of bread they can buy. They can buy fruit. They can buy vegetables. They can buy dairy. And yet you can't tell food stamp people what they can buy?
They can't buy usual things like toilet paper, paper towel, but they can buy junk food at the gas station. They can go to fast food places like McDonald's and feed their families on that.
Yes, they do.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: No.
GLORIA DEL GRECO, INDIANA FARM BUREAU MEMBER: Yes, they do. I've seen them.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, here's the thing: We have tightened up that issue of the fast food. Only -- I think I'm right about this, senior citizens are able to do that because it's harder for senior citizens. We have significantly changed the stores that can redeem SNAP benefits to encourage fewer convenience stores.
The reality is a lot of these people live in areas where they don't have access to a full scale grocery store. There are a lot of food deserts in this country, and it's tough. It's tough.
The WIC program is designed to supplement what people will buy otherwise. And so you can basically give them a package, they go to a WIC store and they fill that package, so you are defining like a grocery sack.
But, you know, honestly, I don't know how I feel about somebody who's in the work force, who's got a couple of kids, is just making it, their kid gets straight As, and they want to buy a cupcake to celebrate it, and you're going to tell them they can't do that. I don't know how I feel about that.
AFBF PRESIDENT BOB STALLMAN: Well, thank you, Mr. Secretary.
We are about out of time here, and I want to use the remaining time to go ahead and, once again, thank the secretary for coming and spending this time with us.
You've gotten a lot of questions that you've answered very well, Mr. Secretary, and I know that this whole crowd appreciates that. So we look forward to continuing that good working relationship with you and USDA, so thank you.
USDA SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Thank you.
Bob, I appreciate the opportunity to be here, and I appreciate the contributions that Farm Bureau members make in their communities.
You know, again, Farm Bureau has been active in so many different places where I've lived, and they are incredible. It's an incredible organization. And the fact that we have this many people here in this town hall is, I think, an indication of the interest.
We're going to do everything we can at USDA to try to be helpful and we're going to continue to have that strong relationship between the American Farm Bureau Federation. We will still have challenges and we still need to work closely together to get the message out about the importance of American agricultures.
Thank you all very much. Thank you.