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USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Addresses American Farm Bureau Convention

Monday, January 13, 2014 - San Antonio, TX

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you, folks.

I want to thank Bob Stallman and Farm Bureau for this opportunity to be here today, and I want to take this opportunity specifically to mention how impressed I am with Bob's leadership and the Farm Bureau team in Washington, D.C. They have been a tireless advocate for the passage of a Farm Bill. They have worked hard in establishing the Farmer and Rancher Alliance, which is allowing us to market agriculture more effectively. They've reached out to returning veterans to give them an opportunity to come back to the farm. They've now launched a Rural Entrepreneurship Initiative that should help small business development in rural areas, and Bob has also been working very hard to make the China Garden a reality at our National Arboretum project that's very important not just to our National Arboretum, but also to our number one ag customer, the Chinese. So I want to thank him for that kind introduction.

I want to acknowledge Judy Canales, who is in the audience today from our Farm Service Agency offices here in Texas, and I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge my good friends from the Iowa Farm Bureau. Craig Lang and the team are likely here, and just so Craig can be satisfied, here is my Farm Bureau membership. I sent my check in. Seriously, it's not in the mail; it should be in the office. So I'm a full-fledged member here today as well.

Let me just take a few minutes of your time today, folks, to talk about obviously what is more important to American agriculture, and that is the passage of a Farm Bill. It's obviously long overdue. My mom used to caution me to have patience. She'd say, "Patience, Tommy. Patience." My mother never met the 2013 Congress. If she were alive today, she'd have to redefine what patience means.

You know, I think everybody in this audience understands the importance of this Farm Bill to producers. Anyone who is purchasing any of the 536 different types of crop insurance that we currently offer understands the importance of having a Farm Bill. Any of the producers who have received disaster assistance before it was canceled, the nearly 400,000 producers in this country that benefited from disaster assistance, understand the importance of having a Farm Bill and the safety net to producers. The 165,000 farmers who have received ownership or operating loans from USDA as a result of the credit title of the Farm Bill understand the importance of it.

All of us who appreciate the need to promote exports around the world, who are satisfied with the fact that we have record exports now in agricultural products that we've increased on an annual basis over the last 5 years, ag exports by over 46 billion additional dollars, 4 million more tons, understands why it's important to have a trade promotion title to a Farm Bill. They understand that for every dollar we invest in that trade promotion, we get $35 of trade activity. They understand why we need a Farm Bill.

They understand why we need those portions of the Farm Bill that allow us to expand market opportunities, not just internationally, but domestically. The fast-growing local and regional food system opportunity where we're now seeing micro loans being issued to smaller producers, farmers markets being developed, new market opportunities for smaller producers, food hubs, farm-to-school programs, all of that comes as a result of a Farm Bill.

And certainly, all of us understand the new opportunities in Rural America that the biobased economy provides and the rural development resources through a Farm Bill help us to expand new market opportunities for crop residue, for livestock waste, and for a variety of products. People also appreciate and understand, especially in the face of a changing climate and disease and pests that can occur, how important it is for research to be funded and supported.

Recently, our researchers have mapped the genome of corn and the dairy cow to address fertility issues. They've addressed the wheat stem rust concerns by creating a new opportunity to avoid that terrible, terrible disease. They've worked on irrigation improvements in light of the scarce water resources that we now see in the western part of the United States. They are constantly developing new ways to use agricultural products. That's why for every dollar we invest in research, we get $20 in benefit.

And certainly, of the 500,000 producers, many of whom are in this audience today, who believe that they have a stewardship responsibility, a record number of acres now enrolled in conservation, they're looking forward to a streamlined conservation program, and we know it's making a difference. We just recently assessed the benefits of conservation in the Chesapeake Bay. Farmers are voluntarily embracing conservation, less soil erosion, less nitrogen and phosphorous getting into the waterways, significant improvements, all of that as a result of having a Farm Bill and the programs in the Farm Bill.

So producers understand this. You all understand it, but it may be necessary for us to have a wider audience of folks who understand and appreciate what this Farm Bill does, not just for producers, but for all of us in this country. Consider the fact that we're a food-secure nation, a nation that can easily satisfy all of its food needs based on the extraordinary productivity of the people in this room and farmers across the United States. Consider the fact that Americans spend less for their food than just about any other people in any other developed or developing country in the world or that nearly one-half of the land mass of the United States of America—one-half of the land mass of the United States of America is impacted by farming and forestry, which are addressed and dealt with in the Farm Bill. It literally has a direct impact on one-half of the land mass of the U.S., or the fact that it involves directly the water supplies that 180 million Americans depend on in the western part of the United States, over half of our population linked to the work that's being done on our working lands in terms of availability and accessibility of precious water resources, or the fact that farming and agriculture represents nearly 5 percent of the gross domestic product is responsible for nearly 10 percent of all American jobs. 16 million Americans are employed as a result of what farmers and ranchers and producers do, and 14 percent of all manufacturing jobs are related to food processing and food manufacturing. It has a significant impact on the economy. It is a central key to the American economy, and it assures us to be a secure and powerful nation.

For those reasons, every American—every American should be concerned about the fact that we don't have a Farm Bill and should be encouraging their congressman and their senator, regardless of where he or she lives or who he or she represents, whether it's urban, suburban, or rural, that this is a bill that's important to the country, and it needs to be done.

Then you add to that not just the benefit to producers, not just the benefit to all citizens in this country, but the adverse consequences of not having a Farm Bill, the lack of a disaster assistance program for livestock producers who have suffered through enormously intense weather patterns, from drought to snowstorms and now extraordinary cold, the fact that Brazil could potentially retaliate against our agricultural products as a result of the WTO cotton case, and not just against our products, not just assessing additional costs, but for the first time potentially in trade history, assess it against intellectual property, opening up the protected property of certain products and certain services in this country to all the world—and those who have produced those services and those products would lose the protection of our patent laws—or the fact that permanent law would have to be instituted in lieu of having a new Farm Bill that would disrupt the market and create extraordinary shortages and higher prices for consumers, or that as we delay further and further, as commodity prices adjust, the baseline upon which Congress will have to make this law could potentially be impacted negatively, making it more difficult as time goes on to ultimately get this done.

It has to get done, it needs to get done, and in my view, it must get done now. And here is why. This is a bill that will allow us to expand significantly and express significant support for crop insurance. It will strengthen the crop insurance program. It will make it available to more producers. It will price it accordingly if you are a value-added producer. It will create enormous opportunities to have crop insurance as the linchpin of our safety net. It will create a flexible revenue protection program, recognizing the extraordinary risks associated with farming.

You know, so often people talk about the safety net, and they talk about it in terms of producers, but it's also Americans generally who benefit from that safety net, because farming is a risky business. Farming can be a very expensive business, and we ask farmers every single day to advance resources, significant resources, to put a crop in the ground, to raise a herd, so that we and our families can be well fed. And because there is significant risk, farmers have to make a business decision, and that business decision is do I accept that risk, is that risk reasonable. And the reality is if you don't have crop insurance, if you don't have a revenue protection program, for many that risk will become unreasonable, and people will move out of the business. And over time we'll see more and more of our agricultural land be used to take care of expanding cities and suburbs, and over time, inch by inch, more and more of our food will have to be imported from some other place, and we will lose that security.

So this safety net is not just for producers. It basically reduces the risk of farming to a reasonable level that allows people to comfortably stay in the business, and we—all of us, every citizen in this country benefits.

You know, this agreement will help restore our trade promotion programs. Our resources for trade promotion expire at the end of this month, and I won't be able to send our team out anywhere in the world to push American agricultural products that are best priced, highest quality, greatest access, reliable. I don't be able to promote it absent a Farm Bill, so we need the trade promotion programs to be restarted. We need to expand conservation but also streamline it, so it's easier for you to access. This bill will do that. It will collapse so many programs into fewer programs, easier to understand, easier to access, encouraging more conservation, establishing the opportunity for us to develop ecosystem markets that could potentially result in more private sector investment in conservation. It will expand opportunities for us not only to promote internationally, but also to create additional markets domestically through rural development.

It will establish a research foundation that will allow us to leverage our research dollars. As federal dollars become scarce, we have to look for creative ways to develop partnerships. A research foundation will help us expand significantly our investment in agricultural research for crop production and crop protection, for livestock production and livestock protection, for ways in which we can deal with a changing climate, to equip our producers to be able to continue to be the greatest in the world. And it provides for additional help and assistance for beginning farmers. As difficult as it is to get in and stay in this business, it's extremely difficult if you are not fortunate enough to inherit a farm or to be in the framing business. If we want these returning veterans, who have served us so well and so admirably and so bravely, many of whom come from rural communities, to have the opportunity to reconnect with the land, we're going to have to have new programs, expanded programs, additional incentives to make it just a little bit easier for beginning farmers to stay in the business and get in the business. This bill will provide that, and it will, of course, provide reforms that will allow us to reduce the overall cost of the program as we deal with this fiscal challenge that we face. So all of these reasons, from disaster assistance to safety net to conservation to trade to new market opportunities, are reasons why we need this Farm Bill and need it now.

Now, I've told our team at USDA that we need to be in a position that as soon as this bill is passed, as soon as it's signed by the President, as soon as the ink is dry, we have to be in a position to being implementing this bill, because we know the farmers and ranchers and producers of this country have waited far too long for the certainty of the policies that this bill will provide. You will want us to be able to move right away. So I thought I'd take a few minutes of your time today to tell you a little about what we do, what we're currently doing at USDA to prepare for the eventually passage of a Farm Bill, because I remain optimistic and hopeful that this will be done and hopefully done soon.

We recognize the need to restore our disaster assistance programs. It's been painful to watch how livestock producers have had to suffer through drought, through snowstorms, and through sub-zero weather, seeing the tragedy that has occurred as a result of these intense weather conditions and not be in position to help. So we understand the importance of getting these disaster assistance programs up and running.

We know that crop loan rate programs need to be set and adjusted. The credit programs need to be finalized. We know it's important to get the common provisions that all programs rely on defined quickly. Putting up the new programs, the revenue protection programs, trying to institute those as quickly as possible, focusing on the STAX program in RMA to make sure that we do, as quickly as we can, enough in that area to satisfy the Brazilians that they don't need to retaliate. We know that we have special challenges with peanut producers and the need for a whole farm coverage program that will have to be instituted. Our conservation programs need to be consolidated, so there's no confusion. We need to set the research foundation up, and of course, we need to continue to invest in rural development, so we create the jobs that helped to support farm families as they need second incomes.

All of this will be a challenge, but we are up to the challenge, and we are putting in place right now teams within USDA to prioritize exactly what needs to be done as soon as this bill is passed, and then within each title, we have priorities, and then in the overall Farm Bill, there are priorities. So, rest assured, as soon as this bill is passed, USDA will be busy implementing, and I've asked the Deputy Secretary to oversee this operation, to have weekly meetings with the team, to ensure that we get this implemented as quickly as possible.

Now, let me finish in the remaining few minutes I have with you this morning to talk about some of the challenges that we collectively face. Let me start off with the fact that we obviously—in order to implement and in order to be able to do the work that we do at USDA, we obviously have to have a budget, and it will be helpful for us to have certainty in the budget. Right now, our budget is roughly a billion dollars less than it was when I became Secretary in 2009. The operating budget is less, and I'm proud to say that 2 years ago, I came to a Farm Bureau Convention and announced our Blueprint for Stronger Service, and I assured you that we would do everything we could to make USDA and more efficient operation without limiting service to farmers, ranchers, and producers, and those who live, work, and raise their families in Rural America.

Our team has worked hard. We have identified now almost $1.2 billion in savings. Some offices have been closed, but travel has been reduced. Our fleet has been reduced. We are using space more efficiently. We are strategically sourcing supplies. We are looking at ways in which we can cut down on energy cost. We have improved our IT procurements, and we have reduced staff, but we haven't sacrificed the mission of USDA. We are going to continue to look to be as efficient as possible, because we know you expect that of us, but having the certainty of a budget will allow us the flexibility to be able to use resources most effectively in order to provide services to you.

We know that there is an issue with workforce in agriculture, and I want to echo Bob Stallman's comments about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. He has seen, and I have seen, the tragedy of producers not being able to produce all they are capable of producing, the sad state of producers producing but not being able to harvest, and in fact some producers making the decision that they just can't simply continue production in the U.S. and have moved it offshore. There's no reason why Congress can't get this done. This bill will not only provide certainty for agricultural workforce; it will secure the border with an historic investment in border security. It will reduce the deficit by $850 billion over 20 years. It will shore up Social Security. There's no reason why we can't get this done, and agriculture needs it to be done this year, and we'll continue to work on making that happen.

We're going to focus on trade agreements. We have two very critical trade agreements that we're going to continue to work on, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the efforts at a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, but we're going to do this in a way that is helpful, not harmful, to agriculture. We recognize that if we are going to open up our markets, our trading partners have to be equally prepared to open up their markets. These agreements have to be fair. They have to be strong. They have to be 21st century trade agreements, and in order for us to have those agreements, we will be working hard to encourage our Members of Congress to give the President trade authority, fast-track trade authority, so that we are in a position as we negotiate to convince our negotiating partners that we are in a position to deliver an agreement that we can reach.

We know that there are issues involving climate, and many of you are faced with some serious challenges as you see weather patterns changing. I want you to know that in this year of 2014, we will be focused on climate. We will be announcing a series of research hubs that will allow us to provide specific geographically significant information, regional information to producers, so that they can adjust accordingly, they can mitigate and adapt to any impact of climate. We will continue our efforts to encourage cover crops, irrigation efficiency, drought resiliency, and better nutrient management, all of which play into our ability to respond and adapt to a changing climate.

We're also going to be engaged in this discussion that's taking place around the country about labeling, and I want you to know that we look at this a little differently than a lot of folks do. Our view is that people are having a 20th century debate about a 21st century problem. Folks want to assess a label that suggests that a particular product can or may contain GMO. Our concern with that is that that label may convey a different message, a message of uncertainty and potentially of unsafety. There are no studies that reflect that there is any safety concern. That's why it's probably not a good idea for us to look at labeling in that context.

On the other hand, consumers are interested in knowing more about their food, and that's a good thing. So our view is that we should be looking at ways in which we can provide those consumers who want information, the information they need, but in a way that doesn't sent the wrong set of signals. That's why we've suggested to the FDA to take a look at the possibility of creating some kind of system using a QR code. That's that funny-looking box that's got little squiggles on it. You can zap your smartphone on it, and it will give you a lot of information about things. Products are currently using this now for product information. That may be a way in which you can provide information but not convey a mistaken concept about the safety of the problem. But we are working to make sure that we deal with this in a way that doesn't create confusion. Multiple state initiatives can often create multiple ways of addressing a problem, creating confusion in the market, and we think there is a better way to address this issue.

We also recognize that with the exception of the people in this audience, the rest of the farming population may be aging.


SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: I know it's a little early in the morning, but you should have caught up on that a lot quicker, folks.


SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: The reality is we're going to have a census come out here pretty soon, and my guess is that in commercial-sized operations, we're going to continue to see that trend that we've seen in the last couple of censuses, which is that the farming population is aging. And so this Deputy Secretary is going to take it upon herself to have a specific initiative focused on how we might be able to encourage more young people to stay in, become involved in this great enterprise.

And I know that there are concerns in this audience about the reach of certain regulatory agencies. President Stallman and I had a brief conversation about the EPA and waters of the U.S. I want you to know a couple things about that. Number one, USDA is engaged with the EPA in conversations about waters of the U.S., conveying the concerns that have been addressed in this hall, and making sure that EPA fully understands and appreciates precisely the impact of whatever they may be considering on the real world.

I also think it's important to note that we've been assured from USDA that the—or from EPA that the draft that was leaked, and unfortunately leaked of a document, involving waters of the U.S. does not necessarily reflect the position of the EPA. So I think we need to wait to see what actually comes out from the EPA, but I want you to be assured that we are engaged in conversations, and we'll continue to engage EPA in a conversation, encouraging producer groups to continue to meet, as we have for the last several years, with the EPA administrator, encouraging her to go out on farms and see how life really is and the commitment that producers have to the environment. I think it might be reassuring.

Let me finish with one last comment, and that is this whole issue of how agriculture is perceived in our country today. My guess is if I took a poll and a survey of the folks here today that you might feel that agriculture is not as appreciated as you believe it ought to be, and I would share that feeling. The reality is so many Americans are so far removed from where their food comes from. They may be three, four generations removed. So I think it's important for us in agriculture to do a couple of things. I think we have to continue to be dedicated to educating our friends who live in suburbs and in urban centers and even in small towns near our farms and ranches. We need to continue to educate them on exactly what farming is and what it does. We need to educate them about the impact that farming has on jobs in America, on what farming does in terms of water and land resources. I think we need to remind them that they are fortunate to have this extraordinary diversity, and that unlike many, many people in the world, they don't have to worry about where their food comes from, that they actually have the capacity within their own borders to produce what they need to eat and feed their family. I think we need to remind them of the fact that they've got a little extra flexibility with their paycheck that people around the world don't have. So I think we have to educate, and I think we've begun to do that.

I think we have to be open to diversity, and by diversity, I mean diversity of operations. We really shouldn't have a discussion within agriculture of whether you should be big, middle-sized, or large. We should be celebrating all forms and all types of agriculture, because there is a common bond of those who grow and produce, a common understanding of the connection to the Earth, a common appreciation and respect for that enormous capacity to grow, and a common wonder every year about how Mother Nature helps or hurts production. I think we need to embrace diversity within our operations. If somebody wants to be an organic producer, God bless them. Somebody wants to be a conventional producer; they should be able to be. Somebody needs and feels the desire to use GMO to increase productivity, to reduce pesticides and chemicals because they see it better for the environment and they see it as a way of helping meet this enormous challenge of feeding the world, they should be allowed to do that as well, and we should be working to make sure that everyone has the capacity and the opportunity to choose the operation that's best for them and their family and not be judgmental about any of them. And I think we ought to be embracing diversity in terms of location. Not every farm necessarily has to be in a rural area. Maybe it might be helpful if there were some opportunities in urban centers, so that people would understand the risks that are associated with farming and how hard work and how challenging that work actually is.

But when it's all said and done, I think the one thing that we have to do and we haven't done as good a job—and I'm certainly going to try to do a better job of this—is to try to summarize in one word what agriculture means. I thought about this. Some of you may know that I'm an orphan, and so I don't really know much about my background. So, as a result, I'm sort of overly interested in my adopted family's history, and it wasn't until long ago, just a few months ago, that I found out that my great-grandfather on my father's side was a farmer. So that means I'm—grandfather, father, myself—I'm three generations removed from the farm. Now, that farmer, Jacob Vilsack, was successful enough that he was able to have children, and those children had options. And one of those children decided not to farm but to go into business, into the brewing business and established a very successful brewery in Pittsburgh. That brewery business enabled him to have 12 children, and it enabled him to expand his operation beyond the brewing business to include a banking opportunity and real estate and several other business opportunities that he then made available to his children. And his children went in—my father went into the real estate business. Because of his work and sacrifice, he enabled me to have the best education in the world, and that gave me the option to choose to be a lawyer. I became a country-seat lawyer. Tragedy occurred in my small town. It opened up an opportunity for me to get involved in politics—mayor, state senator, governor, and now Secretary of Agriculture. But it all started with agriculture.

The reality of this country is that not long ago, virtually everybody in this country did not have the options that my family had, that the only option was to stay on the farm, because staying on the farm meant survival for you and your family. There wasn't any thought about moving off the farm, because there simply wasn't the opportunity or the option, but then along came generations of farmers, like yourselves. Along came folks who said, "You know, we can do better. We can expand production. We can develop machinery that will allow us to do more work," and over time, 90 percent of the population that lived in Rural America and that farmed when this Department of USDA was founded, 90 percent slowly reduced. So, today, it's 15 percent who live in Rural America and less than 1 percent who farm. What do the other 99 percent do? What options do they have available to them because they don't have to worry about where their food comes from? They are not required to stay on the farm because there is less than 1 percent of America that's handling it, that's producing so much that we can feed ourselves and feed the world. Every person in this country today has that option to live someplace else and to be someone else, to be a lawyer, to be a teacher, to be a doctor, to be an engineer, to be a construction worker, to be a business owner, to live anywhere in this country. Why? Because we have farmers who are so good that we don't have to worry, and we get to do what we want to do.


SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: So my final point is freedom. That's what you mean to this country. It's more than food security. It's more than paycheck flexibility. It's the extraordinary opportunity in this country that you can be whatever you want to be, not just simply by dreaming big dreams, but because you've got somebody somewhere in some rural community on some farm or on some ranch, in some orchard, producing enough so that you've got the nutrition to be whatever you want to be, and, folks, that ought to be celebrated. The country ought to be reminded of it, and every farmer in this country should be valued, appreciated, and thanked, because we in this country have been extraordinarily blessed by you. God bless you all.