Vilsack Challenge: If Government Doesn't Do It, Who Does?

Secretary also addresses issue of food security and energy production saying real question should be how to help American farmers do it all.

Published on: Apr 12, 2011

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says the discussion over budgets and over biofuels needs to be reframed.

In a speech to the North American Agricultural Journalists Tuesday morning, Vilsack said the discussion now is all about limits on American agriculture and what we have to give up in order tohave a secure food supply.

"The real question we should be asking is how we redesign agricultural production so that we can produce sufficient crops to meet all our needs," he said. "There are areas where there is significant double-cropping potential, areas where we can expand. It is my belief that we can do it all."

On the question of budgets, he agreed that reducing the deficit is important and that cuts are necessary.

But he said, so far the discussion has been all about what to cut and not about the larger questions of government and private responsibility.

"If you say the government shouldn't be doing this, say conservation, then you are saying either it is not necessary or that someone else should pay for it. I think it is time to have a discussion about who and how and where the private sector picks up what we consider essential, but not the role of government."

He offered a second example of funding to fight the pine bark beetle, a pest that has killed thousands of pine trees in the Pacific Northwest and California. The resulting dead trees are raise the threat of wildlife.

So, he said, when there were available funds in the wildfire suppression fund, he requested to use them to treat trees in the most vulnerable communities to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.

Instead, Congress applied the reserve funds to deficit reduction, then sent him a letter telling him to find a way to fight the pine bark beetle.

"You can't go both ways," he said. "You can't tell us to do something, and on the very same day take away the money that would allow us to do it."

Vilsack promised to send a copy of the Congressional letter to reporters later today. It was, he said, signed by eight Congressmen who have been virulent about deficit reduction.

He dodged a suggestion from Urban Lehner of DTN that it would be American farmers large or small who would bear the burden of losing federal dollars for conservation.

In response to a question of who would pick up cuts in school lunch programs, he said "schools are public and the public has funds. School districts have the ability to raise money through property taxes and fees on services and the like."

Agriculture has already lost big money in the budget negotiations. In the first Continuing Resolution in March, the Agricultural Research Service lost $44 billion, said Sandy Miller Hays, ARS Information Director.

She said the research division had to cut 46 projects and close one research station in Oreno, Maine.

Cuts agreed upon in the last two years have also significantly reduced the budget for agriculture. In speeches a month ago, Kansas Congressmen were vowing to fight efforts to take more money from the agriculture budget, citing those earlier reduction agreements.

The latest round took an additional $4 billion from USDA, about 10% of the total cuts in the provision.