The annual American Farm Bureau Federation meeting is a potent venue where thousands of diverse farmers gather to learn more about a lot of topics. But top of mind at this year's meeting is the extended farm bill and the lack of a five-year farm bill. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the group Monday at its Nashville, Tenn., meeting and admitted his frustration in the lack of a new five-year bill.
"This was an opportunity for true reform," he says. "This was a measure that was defensible and understandable to a wide variety of people in this country." Yet the measure didn't pass and going into 2013 with the extension means lawmakers will be dealing with a different financial baseline than they had in 2012.
Vilsack says the questions left after the extension was passed include the state of ACRE, a long-term program that many farmers had committed to be part of. Vilsack notes that his office will do what it can based on what Congress directs it to do with the extension. "People made a choice with respect to ACRE," he says. "We're going to work to provide opportunities to opt in or opt out and give them the flexibility and opportunity to reevaluate the program."
Going forward, Vilsack acknowledges that with the sequester ahead there is no guarantee over what the program may be. The budget pressures will be key as work starts on a new five-year bill.
He expressed concern and disappointment, as well, regarding lost momentum. The ag community has been working to expand local choices for consumers, build toward a biobased economy, but now that work may falter without the resources and commitment of a five-year law. In fact, failure to pass that bill could even have trade impacts, since Brazil has a standing complaint at the World Trade Organization that with no new bill could allow the country to initiate trade sanctions against the United States.
"We are committed that 2013 will not be a repeat of 2012," Vilsack says. "We need a five-year bill and we need it now." The Farm Bureau audience greeted that sentiment with a round of applause.
He notes that without the five-year bill there are questions about the safety net farmers have, it limits the ability to provide financial help to beginning farmers and ranchers. There are many questions going forward that will need to be answered, and a new five year bill is the best approach.
Vilsack has been talking about the "invisibility" of rural America to lawmakers in Washington. He notes in today's talk that agriculture is the second most productive aspect of the economy since 1980. "I wonder how many people outside this hall know that?" he notes.
Political clout needs addressing
Vilsack says that the lost clout of rural America starts with the fact that 1,130 rural counties have seen over a 50% reduction in population. And that 16% of America lives in rural counties, the lowest level in history. "We have to look at ways to expand our influence," he notes.
His idea? Convey the ag message in a non-conventional way. His example, promote Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, because of his Nebraska background, but also his need for fuel security - which is linked to the bio-based economy. Or the new Treasury Secretary would have a key role for market tax credit programs that support market expansion.
Vilsack advocates reaching out to a range of groups on topics including the immigration debate, nutrition programs and others where agriculture plays an important role. It is in this way that rural America can elevate it's voice.
He's even taken on that tactic himself inviting the Chamber of Commerce to USDA to hear more about the work and technology being used in agriculture today. "It was probably the first time the Chamber of Commerce visited USDA during a Democratic administration," Vilsack notes. The effort was to show that American agriculture has a major role to play in the future.
Vilsack, whose position as Secretary of Agriculture, was officially confirmed by the White House this week, knows he's got work to do, but it appears he's ready to tackle the job.