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Remarks as Delivered by Secretary Tom Vilsack at USDA Kick-off of International Year of Soils

January 6, 2015

Thank you very much, thank you. Certainly is a pleasure to be here this afternoon. I apologize for being a few minutes late. But I was visiting with some important folks in the cattle industry and we were having an important conversation. But this is a great opportunity for us to put the focus and attention on something that is extraordinarily important to the future, not just of agriculture, not just to Rural America, or rural parts of the world. But to all of us. And it is fitting and appropriate that we take an opportunity this year to focus our attention on the important role that soil plays in our lives. And I can tell you that we take this commitment of celebrating our soils, of studying our soils, of committing to our soil very seriously here at USDA. This is probably a quote that you've heard before and if you have I apologize for repeating it, but I think it is one that says it all in a very relatively short phrase. Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was obviously very interested in agriculture, very interested in rural parts of the country. And in fact, I just got finished looking at a 1937 study of land tenure. An interesting study that was conducted back in the depression era when there was deep concern about the economy in rural parts. FDR said that a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. And I think there is a bit of logic to that. This country of ours has been blessed with extraordinary soil. And its capacity to produce is really one of the great miracles of this country and I think is in part responsible for this country's great growth and strength. But our soils in the U.S. and around the world are challenged. They're challenged by a changing climate and its impact on soil health. They're challenged on the basis of short term thinking.

One of the reasons I was late was I was discussing this whole issue of land ownership in the U.S. The fact that there are a lot of people owning land today in the U.S. who are not necessarily connected to the land. It is an investment. It is something they inherited. It is something that a generation or two ago, perhaps was directly connected to the farming operation and now in the hands of non-farm owners and are there interests aligned with the investments that are required to be made in improving and enhancing soil health. So it's a challenging time. And it's one of the reasons I'm proud of the fact that we at the USDA have taken this challenge seriously. I mean not only have we established climate hubs to take a look at the vulnerabilities of our land and agriculture and forestry, but we've gone beyond that. We've embraced the notion within NRCS of the soil health campaign, focused on greater diversity in our soils, making sure that our soils remain covered as long as possible to retain nutrients and to retain precious water resources. And we certainly addressed that and saw a deep concern about that during the very difficult drought of 2012.

Creating living roots in the soil, focusing on making sure that we optimize the inputs that are required to produce this great abundance that we enjoy in this country. So we've been very aggressive and will continue to be through NRCS and through the Forest Service in focusing on the role that soils play and the role that we in government can play at enhancing and protecting and preserving our soil. We want to continue to promote double cropping and cover crops and better use of water resources and better use of crop residue. We're going to continue to focus on agroforestry and efficient irrigation systems. And in this current year, 2015, we're going to look to expand partnerships. We'll be announcing in the very near term our Regional Conservation Partnership Program Awards, which will begin that process. We continue to work through the Forest Service in developing partnerships for better restoration and resiliency within our forests. We want to expand the use of our Farm Bill programs, we want to expand the research that's involved in soil health; critically important for us to know as much as we need to know about what works and what doesn't. We're going to expand training, both internally and externally, in terms of people's understanding and appreciation for soil health. And we're going to take our Conservation Innovation grant program and make sure that a portion of it is targeted to soil health.

So we are going to celebrate this year of international soil health. We're going to continue our campaign and we're going to expand on it. And I'm excited about this. I think the video is a wonderful opportunity; this international year of the soil is a wonderful opportunity to educate the young people of this country. I strongly suspect that a lot of people in this country just do not understand and appreciate the extraordinary treasure and asset that we have. And we have a responsibility here in the U.S. to work with other countries. That's why we enthusiastically engage the Climate Smart Agricultural Alliance. That's why we enthusiastically engage the Global Research Alliance. Why we're expanding our Open Data Initiative, because we want to work with our partners and the rest of the world to ensure it's not just our soil health that gains attention. We're going to need everybody focused on this. So this is an important celebration. It's an important recognition. It's an important opportunity for us to educate people about what we are doing and it's an important opportunity for us to recommit to expand on what we're doing. So I hope everyone here today understands and appreciates this is a priority for this USDA, it's a priority for this president. It's a priority for this country. And I think we will all benefit with this investment. Thank you.