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Opening Statement of Thomas J. Vilsack Before the House Committee on Agriculture – Remarks as Delivered

WASHINGTON, January 20, 2022:

Mr. Chairman, thank you very, very much. I appreciate the opportunity to be here today. And also, to Representative Thompson, thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee. Thank you to the members for this opportunity.

I suppose I could focus on the fact that our farm income is as good as it's been in the last eight years and that we've had record exports, but I'd really like to focus on one phrase of my testimony on page four. I think it explains the heart of the challenge that farmers and rural America face and have faced for considerable period of time. I want to focus on the phrase ‘an extractive economy.’ Extraction economy. I make this reference on page four of my testimony in order to set the stage for discussion, hopefully over the long haul, as you begin your process of the Farm Bill reauthorization.

An extraction economy is an economy that, essentially, takes things from the land and off the land. Unfortunately, rather than converting them into value and adding them in close to the rural areas where that natural resource is, they are transported long distances, where they are value added in some other location, where opportunities and jobs are created elsewhere. I think it's going to be important for us as we look forward to try to develop what is called a circular economy, in which the wealth is created and stays in rural areas.

Let me give you a couple of examples of how that could happen: There has been a focus on local and regional food systems. We learned during the pandemic that our system, our food system, was not as resilient as we hoped it would be. One of the ways of making it more resilient is to create local and regional opportunities. That's one of the reasons why we are focused on expanding processing capacity. Something that I hear all the time when I travel around the country is about the need for our cattle producers, our livestock producers, our hog producers to have choice and opportunity for a local processing facility that creates local jobs, that allows that revenue and wealth that's created from processing to stay in the community.

Another example is obviously the bio-based manufacturing. Biofuels are one example, but there are a multitude of ways in which we can convert agricultural waste product, a wide variety of things beyond renewable energy and fuel, to include chemicals, materials, fabrics and fibers. Again, creating opportunity for farmers and additional income sources as well as rural jobs.

Climate change creates an opportunity for us as we look at ways in which rural lands can be used to sequester carbon. As we embrace climate-smart agricultural practices, we open up a whole new vista of opportunity for farmers to be paid for the carbon sequestration that they are currently doing and will do in the future.

These are all examples of a circular economy where the wealth stays, the opportunity is created, the jobs are created in rural areas. We at USDA are focused on trying to incent and encourage that type of circular economy to be more prevalent in rural areas across the United States.

Mr. Chairman, I know that there are a variety of questions that will be posed today. I hope as this Committee begins its serious work on the Farm Bill that you'll take some time to work with us to on how we might be able to do a better job of maintaining and creating wealth in rural communities and making sure that historically underserved populations and communities also get a fair amount of attention.

We at USDA are committed to working with you in partnership to use the resources that are available from Congress in a way that helps to create those kinds of opportunities. With that, I'll yield back the balance of my time and look forward to the questions that you all have.