Vilsack: Work on climate-smart ag should begin before next farm bill
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that work on climate-smart agricultural policies should take place in the next two years so that Congress has experiences from which to learn before writing the 2023 farm bill.
In a speech made online to the Commodity Classic, the annual gathering of corn, soybean wheat and sorghum growers, Vilsack said that current conservation programs should be refocused on climate-smart agriculture and also said that a carbon bank that benefits farmers could also give Congress an idea of what needs to be included in a new five-year farm bill.
Vilsack said USDA could use the next two years for “test marketing a lot of these concepts.”
Vilsack’s focus on a carbon bank raises the question of whether USDA will try to use the Commodity Credit Corporation, its $30 billion annual line of credit at the Treasury, to finance the bank, possibly by guaranteeing farmers a certain price for carbon they sequester.
Vilsack, other USDA appointees and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., have said they believe USDA has the authority to use the CCC to establish a carbon bank, but Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., has said he doubts it.
In the one-hour talk, Vilsack also said that he believes USDA will be able to announce “within weeks” the new rules for the third Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. The Biden administration has put a hold on the program — established in the last days of the Trump administration — in order to review it.
Vilsack said the Biden administration is determined to figure out who has gotten aid, who has gotten only some aid, and who has been completely left out.
He said the administration will attempt to deliver aid to everyone in the supply chain who has been hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, although resources will be limited. But he said USDA might use regular programs, and looks forward to Biden’s American Rescue Plan becoming law in order to figure out the full resources that are available.
Vilsack repeated previous statements that he is focusing on improving the economic situation of American farmers and ranchers by creating more, better, newer and fairer markets for U.S. agricultural products.
On China, Vilsack said the prospects for sales are good “as long as the relationship is focused on trade because China needs what we can provide, but the reality is our China relationship is complex.”
That means, he added, that it is very important for him to explain to the National Security Council the impact of U.S. policies on American agriculture.
Asked by Gale Cunningham, the farm broadcaster who moderated the event, what he sees as “some of the good things from the past four years,” Vilsack declined to comment directly on the performance of the Trump administration.
“I am not sure that we can say with confidence that we survived the trade war. Tragically there were farmers that did not survive the trade war, farmers that had to leave the farm,” he said.
He also noted that exports to China today are “pretty much” what they were in 2017, when President Trump took office, and that on a percentage basis, China is buying less from the United States than it did in 2017.
He acknowledged that China had made commitments on sanitary and phytosanitary practices, but noted that those discussions had been going on for years and that Chinese “haven’t fully engaged” on regulatory policy.
The Chinese “are not where they need to be or where we want them to be,” he said.
Asked about biofuels, Vilsack said fossil fuel vehicles are going to be on the road for many years and that there are many opportunities for biofuels “as part of the fuel mix.”
If an electric car battery wears out or the driver does not have electricity, the only thing that can be done is to call someone for assistance, he noted, adding that he didn’t know what would happen with an electric powered airplane, ship or boat.
He also said it will be important for the Environmental Protection Agency to use its powers to grant small refinery waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard only “sparsely.”
Vilsack said that filling positions at the Farm Service Agency, including the state directors and committees, will take some time because filling those jobs is a “cooperative” negotiation involving USDA, White House personnel and senior members of Congress in each state.
He added that it is important to make sure that the USDA “looks like America we serve.”
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