During luncheon today with the North American Agricultural Journalists, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack keyed on a number of issues affecting U.S. agriculture. One of them was budget cutting due to sequestration.
"We knew it was coming and started reducing staff more than two years ago to become more efficient. "It's easier on the Ag Department than for some others," he added. As a result, Vilsack expects to see fewer farm loans, less conservation plans and more careful management of disease outbreaks (in plants and animals).
"We've been in a world of unlimited spending," says Vilsack. "We all know we have to change. And we need to be creative about it."
Coordination on ag labor issues?
One area the Secretary spoke of was federal oversight of ag labor, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Labor Department. But USDA, he said, already has county or regional offices and labor issues such as documented and undocumented workers tend to be local issues which could be better addressed locally.
"But we don't want a repeat of the 1980s," stressed Vilsack. "We must have a workable pathway for documented workers to gain residency, and we must have a workable guest worker program."
He also emphasized that any immigration reform must be very clear about what aspect of immigration is being reformed. "No one-size-fits-all," he added. "One wage for all is not feasible.
"Our system is broken. It has to be fixed. This country has at least 500,000 undocumented workers, and possibly as many as 700,000.
"Everyone needs to understand agriculture's risks that would force us to import more food. I'd clearly prefer that we wouldn't have to."