Vilsack: Use farm bill to diversify profit centers |

Vilsack: Use farm bill to diversify profit centers

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivers the keynote speech at today's Agricultural Outlook Forum. Photo from USDA livestream
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today the farm bill should be used to continue the Biden administration’s programs to diversify the ways in which farmers can make money and fight the population decline in rural America.
In a speech to the USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, Vilsack said, “We have an extraordinary opportunity with the farm bill reauthorization to say to the farming community: It’s not just get big, it’s diversify. It’s create multiple profit centers in your farming operation.”
But in order to achieve those multiple profit centers, Vilsack said farmers will need “technical assistance and financial assistance and help that will allow you to link to your local market, allow you to take advantage of expanded processing, that will allow you to convert that agricultural waste, that, in some cases, is over-applied on land to now be directed to a manufacturing processing facility located just down the road that’s creating a material, a fabric, a fiber, a chemical, a fuel.”
In a speech very similar to one he delivered to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition at its recent Washington meeting, Vilsack said the present is a “pivotal” moment in American agricultural and rural policy. The other pivotal moments have been President Lincoln’s decisions in the 1860s to create the Agriculture Department and the land grant educational institutions, President Roosevelt’s decisions in the 1930s to create conservation programs to deal with the dust bowl and the supply management system to deal with the depression on the farms, and finally the Nixon administration’s decision to begin ending the supply management system to take advantage of U.S. productivity gains. He noted that Earl Butz, the agriculture secretary in the Nixon and Ford administration, urged farmers to “plant fencerow to fencerow.”There was one difference between today’s speech and his speech to NSAC. In each speech, he noted that Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary in the Trump administration, had said at an event in Wisconsin that farmers need to get big or go out of business. In the NSAC speech, Vilsack seemed critical of Perdue but in this speech he said Perdue was only “honest” in describing the reality of American agriculture and had been criticized “unfairly.”
Vilsack made it clear, however, that the Biden administration does not think farmers should have to get big or go out of business.
The price of American agricultural efficiency has been consolidation of farms, a loss of population that has affected small towns and schools and, as the pandemic proved, a lack of resiliency, Vilsack said.
The Outlook Forum’s audience of agribusiness executives and traders are used to agriculture secretaries using the event to talk about technological innovations and international trade, but Vilsack said the forum’s theme of “Seeds of Growth Through Innovation” is about creating new opportunities for rural Americans.
Vilsack acknowledged that farm income has been at its highest levels in recent years, but he pointed out that most farmers still get more income from off-farm jobs than from farming.
Now, Vilsack said to the audience, “we have to ask ourselves a serious question of whether we want a system that favors further consolidation” or whether innovation can produce a different outcome.
President Biden “understands that the strength of the country is in the middle class” and wants it to grow, Vilsack said. USDA has been doing its part to achieve middle class growth by trying to increase profits for smaller operators through a series of programs funded through the Commodity Credit Corporation, USDA’s line of credit at the Treasury, the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, he said.
Those programs include “derisking” climate-smart agricultural practices, creating markets for carbon, encouraging bio-based fuels particularly for aviation, increasing meat processing capacity and making it easier for smaller operators to sell farm products to schools and other institutions.
Vilsack did not mention that it is unclear whether Congress will use the farm bill to continue the programs the Biden administration has started through bills passed when the Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate as well as the presidency. But he did say, “The opportunity for growth is all about these opportunities. And I ask all of you to join us in making this happen. Because our farmers need it. And our country depends on it.
”Strengthening rural America “is important and critical to our democracy,” Vilsack said, concluding with his frequent point that he believes rural America disproportionately sends its sons and daughters into the military.
Young rural Americans join the military, Vilsack said, because “they grow up in an area that is surrounded by farmers and ranchers, people who understand something very basic about the land. You can’t keep taking from it. You can’t just keep putting the seed in the ground and getting the crop out. You have to put something back in the ground. You have to replenish it. You have to nourish it. Something that’s valuable to you needs to be invested in.”
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivers the keynote speech at today’s Agricultural Outlook Forum. Photo from USDA livestream
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