In the ongoing debate over the next farm bill, media and politicians place too much emphasis on crop subsidies and the Supplemental Assistance and Nutrition Program, according to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The secretary spoke in Lincoln during the final day of the University of Nebraska Rural Futures Conference.
"I can't tell you how frustrated I am with this farm bill," he said.
The farm bill is much more than commodity and food assistance programs, he told the audience. Other key farm bill provisions are conservation and water use incentives, export promotion, domestic markets, research programs, rural development, and energy production, said the ag secretary, who is a former governor of Iowa.
"It's a safety net not just for farmers but also for the country. Every American benefits from passage of a farm bill."
Vilsack several times criticized the lack of a new farm bill. "Most of the tools we use to advance USDA's strategies depend on the next farm bill."
Two other critical issues in Congress are USDA's budget and immigration reform, he said. In the latter case, he referred to the growing demand for farm workers.
Vilsack, whose talk also was part of the UNL Heuermann Lecture series, rattled off a half-dozen strategies the agency is focusing on to increase the efficiency of production agriculture and enhance opportunities in rural America. Those strategies include expanding trade through export programs and free-trade agreements, maintaining and growing conservation programs, beefing up regional and local food systems and organic food production, and developing bio-based economies in rural areas.
He spoke of not only of the strengths today in agriculture and also of the challenges that lie ahead.
"We are more secure nation because we can produce all that's needed to feed our people," he said. "Very few nations have the capacity to do so. We have extraordinarily productive farmers."
Yet, he said, per capita income in rural America lags behind incomes in urban areas, and 85% of the nation's poorest counties area rural. Populations in rural areas are dropping as a lack of new jobs drives young people away.
That's why Vilsack stressed opportunities that rural America provides. For instance, he said the coming bio-based economy will exist largely in rural America where new industries are sprouting up to transform virtually every part of agriculture waste and residues into something new. About 3,100 companies already are involved in this industry and they will locate in rural America, creating jobs there.
Rural areas also provide opportunities for people to invest in enterprises that attract urban visitors to take advantage of the billions spent each year on recreation. "Urban and suburban residents desire to go there (rural places) to get away from it all," the secretary said.
Value-added food systems, local food systems and farmers' markets create diversity in rural areas and more jobs in the process, he said.
While these opportunities do exist, Vilsack said its advocates must make that case forcefully to people who give little thought to how gets on their tables. "People don't quite get what's on the farm because we don't talk to them, so they get some pretty crazy ideas," he said.