5 Questions: Vilsack likes Senate’s direction on dairy, research, bio-economy
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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Greeley, Colo., last week, applauding Leprino Foods for its innovation and food-safety efforts at its expanding cheese-processing plant, and also praised the company for the opportunities it’s creating for the rest of the region’s agriculture industry.
He also took time to talk with the Fence Post about how Washington could be doing much, much more to help Leprino and others in food and agriculture production, and what good and bad he sees coming out of the ongoing farm bill talks.
Q. In your presentation today, you talked about the success of this Leprino Foods plant. As the leader of agriculture policy in the U.S., what do you feel needs to be done in Washington to help Leprino and others in food and agriculture production continue succeeding?
A. If you have a plant like this one — that expects and needs a doubling of milk production in the state of Colorado from dairy producers — then obviously you have to have dairy producers in business.
To have dairy producers in business, they have to know what the certainty is, in terms of government policy.
How is credit going to be available?
What kind of risk management tools will they have to be able to operate?
Will dairy have a different support structure in place to keep them in business when times are tough?
They don’t have that today, because of the lack of action by Congress.
Our hope and prayer is that Congress gets serious about getting this done and begins to concentrate on working out differences between the House and Senate bills — and that we do this expeditiously, because we don’t have a lot of time left.
When Sept. 30 comes and the current programs expire, that could create additional chaos and uncertainty.
Q. Milk producers and milk processors don’t always agree on policy. Do you feel that farm bill talks are going in a direction for both sides to have policies in place that work for them?
A. It’s a positive direction for this reason: The current MILC (Milk Income Loss Contract) program provides some payments, but it doesn’t really help dairy farmers when they need help the most.
It doesn’t help them when the price difference in what they get for their milk and what they pay for their feed gets so low there’s virtually no profit.
Today’s dairy market so volatile. Milk prices can go down so rapidly, and feed costs can go up significantly if we have a drought, as we had last year.
The key is to have some kind of stabilization.
How do we stabilize the price in such a way that companies like Leprino know how much they’ll pay for milk now and into the future?
How do we reassure milk producers that they’ll have a decent price to stay in business?
Q. Does the House or Senate bill do a better job of addressing milk-price stabilization?
A. The policy the Senate adopted basically does this, and I think the House has looked at portions of that language.
There’s still differences that need to be work out, but I think either way, we’ll see an improvement from what we have now.
Q. Are there other areas of the farm bill talks you see going in a positive direction?
A. The notion of research that was discussed earlier today (during presentations at Leprino), about the innovation center the dairy folks have.
We need to continue to expand research efforts like that in agriculture.
We’ve kind of flat-lined that process in terms of investment in the recent past, and that’s going to result in a decline of our production, if we don’t ramp up research.
The research proposal in the farm bill basically would create a new opportunity for a foundation that would leverage additional private-sector investments.
Secondly, we need jobs in rural America, and the ability to expand the bio-economy — not just on fuel and energy, but byproducts — creates enormous job-creation opportunities.
Those two things are in the Senate bill — not necessarily in the House bill, and those differences have to be worked out.
Q. Farm bill aside, what else do you feel needs to be done in Washington?
A. There are two principle issues today that are of great interest and in need of action from Congress.
One of them is the farm, food and jobs bill.
The second is comprehensive immigration reform.
The reality is a lot of dairies will need workers — maybe even this plant needs workers — and some of whom need to be properly documented.
Many workers in agriculture today are not.
We need a comprehensive immigration reform bill that provides us a secure and stable workforce.
If I can’t get workers, it may not make any difference if this company (Leprino) can buy more of my milk, if I can’t produce it.
And I can’t produce it if I don’t have enough hands to produce it.
Comprehensive immigration reform is critically important to getting that stable workforce. ❖