At a stopover in Kansas City last week on his way to California, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spent about an hour discussing farm policy, mainly progress on a new farm bill, with members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting at the group’s annual convention. He emphasized that a farm bill reaches far and wide and has a major effect on the country as a whole, not just farm country. Vilsack told the broadcasters, “The country, not just the rural parts and farmers, needs a farm bill because of the policy certainty that comes with a farm bill.” He added that during his visits around the country in recent months, he’s heard real concerns from farmers that “They can’t make decisions, they don’t know what to do. Some would like to expand their operations or go into a new operation or buy a new piece of equipment, but they are hesitant to do any of that because they simply don’t know what the programs are going to be or if there is going to be a program.”
The secretary said a strong farm safety net needs to be the basis of a new farm bill based on today’s farming environment. That’s where he believes the discussion gets off track. Negotiators talk about the importance of farm programs to farmers, but the discussion, he feels, “needs to be expanded because it’s important to all Americans.” He emphasized to the farm broadcasters that as a farmer, “You can do everything right and still end up with no crop through no fault of your own.” Without an adequate safety net, to reduce risk to a manageable level, he argued, a lot of people could get out of the business. If that happens Vilsack said, “We could eventually see our country going from a food secure nation that produces enough to feed our people and more around the world to a food insecure nation.” That, he added, could very well threaten our nation’s strength and safety if we have to depend on others.
Another reason a new, long term farm bill is good for everyone across the country, he added, is because this is a reform bill. He noted that reform now seems to be in the form of budget cuts almost across the board and that makes a farm bill fiscally responsible because we would know where we are going. Among other things he said, a new farm bill would help hold down interest rates and encourage consumer spending, something that would help all Americans.
He also cited conservation programs as another area that benefits everyone across the country. He pointed out that,” Nearly half of the U.S. land mass is tied up in farming and ranching and forestry and those industries have a huge impact on air and water quality as well as soil health and fertility, all things that sustain life.”
Expansion of market opportunities is another area of the farm bill that has benefits for more than just farmers. Farm bill programs and initiatives, Vilsack said, have promoted local and regional food systems, export markets and new bio-based manufacturing operations that produce new products. Those activities all create jobs Vilsack pointed out, “And the more jobs we have in the economy, the stronger our economy is, the less the deficit is and the stronger the nation is.”
A new farm bill also has to be considered an innovation bill, according to the secretary. Part of the funding in the bill will go to research at our land grant universities. That research Vilsack said, “ provides jobs in those university towns and new ways to do business to market our increasing agricultural production around the world.” Our innovative agricultural research has helped make agriculture one of the two most productive industries in our economy since 1980, he added. But he said we can’t continue to fuel the engines of agriculture “unless we continue to do research.”
Vilsack is also very aware that food and nutrition programs are major reasons why a new farm bill hasn’t been written yet. He emphasized the problem with that discussion is that the focus is on the numbers and how much to cut. He said, “It’s not about the numbers, it’s not the right policy. The right policy will give you the right numbers.” He believes the right policy is doing a better job of creating work opportunities in this country and linking those jobs to people receiving food stamps and other benefits. He said across the board cuts are not the answer because right now, “92% of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries are already in the work force, children, people with serious disabilities or senior citizens,” While Secretary Vilsack did not give a figure as to how much the Obama administration would accept in cuts to food and nutrition programs, he did indicate the number had better be closer to the Senate’s proposal than the House’s call for $39 billion in cuts over 10 years.