With leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees drafting a plan to cut spending by $23 billion over the next 10 years, no one should be surprised that some current programs will no longer be funded. "Direct payments are going to be affected. They are not likely to be around," Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in Ankeny, Iowa, on Monday.
Vilsack spoke to a group of ag leaders at the John Deere Des Moines Works and laid out his priorities for the new legislation. He acknowledged, first of all, "We will have to do more with less". Vilsack said that can be accomplished by simplifying programs and reducing redundant practices, for example.
Vilsack encouraged Congress to continue to support conservation programs and streamline the process for applications. "We need to create ways to incent the private sector to participate in conservation. Private investment will be important as the federal impact is reduced."
He said USDA has been looking at ways to increase conservation efforts through locally driven projects.
"Farmers rely on a strong safety net," continued Vilsack. "But the safety net must reflect the diversity of U.S. agriculture. The programs must be simple and understandable." But most important, according to the Secretary, "the safety net has to be acceptable to the other 98% of the population. Agriculture is always risky but good policy can minimize those risks," he added.
Vilsack also said it's important to make it easier for people to get into farming. He pointed out that 30% of farmers are over age 65 and have no one to take over the farm. "The challenge is to find new ways such as tax credits, etc. to support and train the next generation."
Vilsack pointed out that research is important in ag and produces a 20-1 return on investment. "But public funding for research has been flat lined since the 90s. If that continues, ag will suffer." He urged Congress to consider ways to increase funding for research. "We seem to be able to find funding for other research, we should be able to find it for ag as well."
Local food sales is the fastest growing segment of agriculture, according to Vilsack. He said Congress should continue to support specialty crop production and improve rural development programs.
Vilsack also called on Congress to focus on growing the bio-based energy industry. "Renewable energy creates jobs, reduces dependence on foreign oil and improves national security." He added that USDA' support of this industry will be more targeted and focused in the future.