Tom Vilsack's address Monday morning to attendees at the American Farm Bureau convention had two overriding themes. The first, to no one's surprise, is the hope that Congress will pass the farm bill yet this month. He also underscored the fact that the farm bill isn't just for farmers and ranchers.
"All producers understand the importance and benefits of the farm bill for agriculture but it's up to us to explain that to a broader audience. Americans spend less for their food than any other developed country in the world.
"Everyone across America should be concerned that we have a farm bill and they should be contacting their senators and representatives. It has a huge impact on our economy."
Add to that the consequences of not having a farm bill, he said. "In lieu of a farm bill, permanent law would have to be enacted and that would have a negative impact on all Americans."
He also noted resources for trade promotions expire at the end of January. "It (passage of a farm bill) has to get done and it has to get done now."
But Vilsack said he has instructed his staff to plan as if the bill will be passed. "As soon as the ink is dry, we will begin implementing," he declared. "We will restore disaster assistance programs, crop loan and credit programs will be finalized as will revenue protection programs, we will consolidate conservation programs, and set up a research foundation. It will be a challenge, but at USDA we are up it."
Vilsack said other work that needs to be done includes a budget, labor reform, and work on a free trade agreement with the European Union. "We have to have fair trade agreements and we need to encourage Congress to give the president fast track trade authority."
The second theme the secretary brought to the convention is the perception of agriculture in America. "Most Americans are now several generations removed from agriculture and we have to educate them on what farming is today. We need to sum up in one word what agriculture means to Americans."
He said that word is freedom. "Less than 1% of the population is needed to produce food these days and that opens up opportunities for the other 99% to do other things. Farmers should be recognized for that."