Q and A with outgoing US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack
January 12, 2017
In an exit interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack summed up his record. Vilsack said he believes the U.S. Department of Agriculture is more innovative, diverse and efficient than before the Obama team arrived, and that the team has done a good job aggregating USDA's various programs and working with other agencies as well as improving the nutrition programs.
The following is an edited transcript of the Nov. 28 interview.
A: This is a hard conversation to have because I have been here eight years and this department has been so active during those years. I tried to figure out a simple way to summarize what we have done. I think this has been an administration of ideas and moving ideas forward.
Each of the letters in the word "ideas" stands for something we have done at USDA.
"I" stands for innovation and investment. We have been engaged not only in expanding the reach of research and innovation through the development of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the new private research foundation. We've also looked at ways we could use our conservation dollars through the conservation innovation grant program, the bio-based manufacturing investments and opening up new job opportunities and new products in rural areas.
Even in the food safety area, we have used innovations to create more protections for ground beef, poultry and turkey products. We have looked at innovation in the future through our climate hubs.
I am really proud of some of the smaller things we have done — the tall wood building contest. Bringing cross-laminated timber into fruition in this country is an important milestone.
"D" stands for a number of things, but most of all it stands for diversity, not just in terms of the workforce here but also the workforce throughout the United States and globally, which has allowed us to be creative problem-solvers. It's also diversity in boards and commissions that we appoint so that there is an ongoing commitment to diversity that survives this administration. It is reflected in the fact that our civil rights record is better, that we have settled civil rights claims and that we have reduced the number of civil rights complaints in this department to historic lows.
"E" refers to being a more efficient department. We've created greater efficiencies in everything from purchasing supplies to how we use space.
We've also become more efficient with our time. Through our process improvement effort, we have reduced the amount of time we spend on ministerial issues by more than 300,000 hours. We have saved people $65 million in costs and fees that they would otherwise have had to pay. We have also saved the department a substantial amount of time that has allowed us to navigate reduced budgets in terms of personnel.
Efficiency is not just in the paperwork associated with running a department like this, it also involves working with other agencies. I think we have created a more efficient relationship with the Department of the Interior regarding endangered species, using conservation dollars to encourage sage grouse habitat, to encourage better opportunities for the lesser prairie chicken, to avoid listings (under the Endangered Species Act) or the risk of listing. It is working more collaboratively and therefore more efficiently with EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on the food waste initiative — another good example – and with the private sector as well.
"A" stands for aggregation, which is focused on the capacity we have developed for leveraging resources to do our job, encouraging better utilization of our own resources and more partners.
There are multiple examples of that in the rural development space. We've licensed more rural business investment corporations to bring more capital to rural America. We got CoBank to commit to a $10 billion credit extension on infrastructure projects in rural America. They've already invested $3 billion. We've recently announced new ways of using loan guarantees from the private sector to expand our efforts in community facilities. Now we are working on an initiative to utilize a portion of our loan portfolio to encourage the private sector to invest in water projects in areas that we can't serve because of population constraints.
Aggregation also in the way we work through things like the Strike Force initiative, where we are bringing the siloed entities of USDA – basically breaking down the silos — and having them work collaboratively in 25 states in poor areas. We have seen a record amount of resources invested in the persistently poor areas, far exceeding Rep. Jim Clyburn's, D-S.C., 10-20-30 program. This year, we spent nearly 50 percent of our rural development resources in persistently poor areas. (Clyburn has proposed that at least 10 percent of each federal program's funds should go to counties where 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for 30 years.)
"S" stands for students, schools and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). There has been tremendous work done in the nutrition space; improving nutritional opportunities for young people, the WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children) improvements, the school lunch changes, creative ways of expanding access to good, nutritious food through SNAP, EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) machines in farmers markets, the food security financing initiative and working on the issue of integrity as well as, providing creative ways to keep track of the SNAP program so it's being used properly.
We can talk about exports, we can talk about farm income, we can talk about rural poverty coming down, unemployment being cut nearly in half in rural areas.
I leave here believing that our team has passed President Obama's test, which is, "Are we leaving this department and the places that we serve, the people we serve, in better shape than we found them?"
A: We've certainly seen a substantial reduction in childhood hunger. Food insecurity among America's children is at its lowest rate in the history of the country. I'm really proud of our summer feeding program that we have expanded, serving millions more meals every year, involving more partnerships, more sites.
Having said that, there are still families that struggle, and there are still kids that struggle. Our work is never going to be done, but I think we leave that situation far better than it was.
What the president told me — to be correct about this — the day he hired me: He asked me to make sure that the children were well fed. In that respect, the work we have done with school meals, expanded access to breakfast, summer meals, the WIC improvements, SNAP families having more choices. I think by any measure we have certainly done what the president asked us to do. (Multiple accounts show that Obama pledged during his 2008 campaign to end childhood hunger by 2015.)
A: Prior to this administration, they weren't going anywhere. More than 25,000 families received some measure of justice for which they had been waiting in some cases years and, in many cases, decades. If it were not for this administration, I am not sure that there would have been any money supplied to African-American farmers, there would have been ongoing litigation with Native American producers and there would not have been any real hope for Hispanic and women farmers because they had not been certified in class action.
In addition to the settlements for individual producers, in the two class actions there are also cy pres funds. Certainly in the Native American case, the Keepseagle case, that is going to have decades of benefits to producers throughout Indian Country. The impact on African-American farmers will be a bit smaller because the size of the cy pres fund is significantly smaller.
I don't think you can just simply look at the numbers of people. But 25,000-plus is significantly better than zero.
In addition to that, there has been this extensive cultural transformation that has taken place within the department, which has resulted in more people of color, more diverse operators receiving more services from USDA than ever before.
They also have, for the first time in many counties, representation on county committees. So now they are getting a measure of justice at the local level.
In addition to that, there has been a concerted effort to expand opportunities for women, not only in positions of authority in this department, but the Women in Agriculture initiative encouraging more women to get involved in ag.
Finally, that is reflected in improved morale in this place, based on the employee viewpoint survey. There is still work to be done in that space but we've made progress and we've improved.
A: That underscores the importance on the political side of the party doing a better job and all of us in government doing a better job of explaining what we do on a day-to-day basis. I'm sure the people who live in those Strike Force states would be surprised to learn that more than $25 billion has been invested either in farm loans or conservation grants or home loans.
There have been more than 200,000 investment decisions made in those Strike Force areas. Many of those areas would not have been getting that kind of attention but for Strike Force. Once you learn how to play the game, once you know how to apply for grants, once you know who the important people are in the bureaucracy, then it becomes a matter of doing it every year.
The facts are that unemployment was 9 to 10 percent in rural areas when we came into office. It is now a little more than 6 percent – the lowest it's been in 10 years. Poverty rates have come down at a rapid rate we haven't seen in the last 25 years, the population declines that were being experienced in rural areas have stalled, and we are beginning to see some communities gain in population.
It is beginning to work, but it is going to take a lot of continued commitment to be recognized.
We have a job to do as government, and we have a job to do as Democrats. They are different jobs. Government has to do a better job of explaining how we work with people, how we work in partnership with folks, the investments that are being made and why they are important.
A: This department has a responsibility of encouraging collaboration and being proactive in looking at potential problems and trying to mitigate them before they bubble up. I don't know enough from an animal health and welfare standpoint to be able to answer your first question.
But here is what I do know. If we are going to be a society where advocacy groups, who believe that animals are not being well treated or could be treated better, are able to stimulate the consuming public and that places the pressure that you mentioned earlier on companies, we ought to structure that conversation so it is fair to everyone. Consumers, food processors, marketers, sellers of food, retailers, producers and advocates need to be in the room at the same time so that there is a full and comprehensive discussion.
By that I mean asking producers, "Hey, guys, are you capable of actually producing this many eggs in this period of time and, if you are, what changes will that require in what you do? How much will that cost? What are the assurances that you get repaid that amount and what assurances do we have that consumers will be as happy or happier even if they have to pay more for their food?"
If we have that conversation, then the stress between advocacy groups and producers on animal welfare can be substantially reduced and, at the end of the day, both can benefit. The advocacy groups can get better conditions more quickly with less resistance, and producers will have more certainty and a better understanding of how this is all going to work financially so that they feel confident they are not being left behind in the conversation.
The cage-free is a good example. If you are asking producers to spend $8 billion, which is what I am told it would take to retrofit facilities to meet the 200-million-plus cage-free egg demand that we have out there, there is no clear evidence today that consumers would be willing to pay or how much more they would be willing to pay for cage-free.
At the end of the day, not everyone is going to be happy because you can't satisfy everybody, but enough people will be happy and satisfied that you'll have the feeling that government is working, that government is listening, that government is responding and that there is more certainty in an uncertain world.
A: There is a situation where producers have to recognize that these concerns are legitimate, that the science is what the science is. There is no question that nitrogen and phosphorous levels in many cases over time have increased, although I think we can make a case that work that's been done in the past eight years has mitigated that – but not to the point where we need it to be.
There has to be a community response to this issue. It can't be all on the farmers because it is not all the farmers – a lot of other things are contributing to this.
That means, on this issue of water, essentially bringing folks together. The constant stress that results in people litigating, people not complying, people looking for ways around regulation — a better example is what we did with sage grouse. There could have been a war in the West. Instead, we went to Interior and said, "You need to give these guys certainty that if you take certain steps, they are not going to be confronted with doing more a year or two year from now. If you really want them to do what is necessary, you'll give them that certainty and we'll give them a cost share that will reduce the financial burden." With that certainty and less cost share, they might be more inclined to do what needs to be done.
Over a thousand landowners said, "Hell, yeah, we'll do this." The sage grouse isn't listed. If it ever is listed, these landowners have the confidence and comfort of knowing they have done what the law requires them to do.
A: Yes, we have a home in Iowa. My new definition of optimism is a 30-year mortgage at the age of 65. We have this wonderful home next to three of our four grandchildren.
A: I don't know. We'll see.
A: I don't think he is paying attention to what I have to say. But, from a department perspective, I have strong views on who should lead this organization. I have mentioned before governors, who I think are uniquely suited because of the nature of their portfolio.
— The Hagstrom Report