Ag Secretary Vilsack addresses Farm Bill priorities

By Erin Voegele | October 26, 2011

Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined USDA priorities for the 2012 Farm Bill during an Oct. 24 speech at the John Deere Des Moines Works. “This legislation and the bills that Congress will pass is really about keeping pace with the changing needs of agriculture and the challenges which face rural America,” Vilsack said. “It's about providing an adequate food supply for our nation and the world. And the choices that these lawmakers will make will help shape agricultural, food, and rural development policy and will help determine what our farms and our rural communities look like.”

The Farm Bill, however, is about more than just farming, Vilsack explained. “For decades, this bill has been about a whole lot more than just farming—it’s been about energy, it’s been about nutrition, it’s been about jobs.”

Regarding the development of the 2012 Farm Bill, Vilsack stresses that there are considerable external pressures that will affect the legislation’s development. “Fiscal and political realities about the size of our debt and the deficit have inspired a very tight budget environment,” he said. “Last week, a bipartisan leadership group in Congress submitted a proposal to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, also known as the super committee, to cut $23 billion out of the bill over the next 10 years. And though these numbers are by no means final, it is a reminder to all of us that if we want this legislation to accomplish a lot, we have to understand that there will be considerably less funding in which to do it. So our priorities must be clear. We simply need to do more with less.”

This means that existing programs will need to be simplified and redundant provisions reduced, Vilsack said. “We need to put a premium on creating innovative solutions to address our current and future problems, also recognizing the importance of making targeted investments to keep agricultural productivity high and our rural communities vibrant,” he said.

According to Vilsack, one of the priorities of the USDA is to strengthen American agriculture. “Many folks don’t realize this, but American farmers and our agricultural industries contribute in no small way to the economic health and strength of our great country,” Vilsack said. “Agriculture is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in our economy… What we do on the farm ripples through the economy and helps to create jobs, particularly when agriculture is thriving.”

During his speech, Vilsack addressed many components of the Farm Bill, including the Energy Title. “Now, one area of determined effort needs to continue to be a focus on the growing biobased economy, with a particular emphasis on renewable energy and biofuels,” he said. “Rural America has done a great job of helping to develop the domestically produced renewable energy and fuel. That job must continue because when we create those opportunities, we create jobs, we reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources, and we enhance our national security. USDA has to have the tools to be able to continue to help this biobased and biofuel and renewable energy economy, and we need to make sure that it's vibrant in all regions of the country. Continuing our investment in renewable energy, biofuel, and biobased products will improve the bottom line for farmers as we find creative ways to use that which they grow.”

Vilsack noted that in the last couple of years, the U.S. has gone from importing 60 percent of its oil to 52 percent as a result of the rapid expansion of the biofuel industry. As a result of biofuel production, Americans also pay about 90 cents less for gas than they would otherwise pay, he said.

“I recognize that the assistance we provide to this industry will likely be more targeted and more limited in the future; but we have momentum in many areas of the country to focus on nonfood feed stocks which will allow us to expand the production of advanced biofuels,” Vilsack said. “I'm committed to working with Congress to build on that momentum.”

Vilsack also said he hopes that as Congress addresses the Farm Bill, its members will understand and appreciate the significance of the BCAP and REAP programs. These are two programs that are worthy of continued investment, he said.

“Just in 2009 and 2010 USDA invested in more than 22,000 renewable energy projects,” Vilsack said. “We're pursuing this next generation of advanced biofuels by helping communities and companies invest to build those biorefineries, we're funding regional research, and we're helping farmers to establish those biofuel crops. We're supporting the farmers, ranchers, and businesses taking risks to pursue those new opportunities, and we're helping to establish the infrastructure to put renewable fuel in all of America's gas tanks. Congress's effort has got to continue to offer strategic support to these important industries.”

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