Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says farm groups need to put aside issues about the size of farms and concentrate on getting the message out about the impact U.S. agriculture has on all segments of the U.S. economy.
Vilsack also urged Republican members of Congress to give some thought to the impact of the draconian reductions they’re seeking in spending on farm payments and other discretionary programs before “mistakes are made.”
The question of whether USDA has been focusing too much time addressing small farmer problems is one that has dogged the Agriculture Department for months. The issue was the subject of the first question Vilsack received when he met with reporters following his presentation at the Commodity Classic in Tampa, Fla.
“To me, this is not about pitting one size farmer against another size,” he said. “We need to talk about all the farmers, and the reason we need to talk about all the farmers is that they represent less than 1 percent of the population. We need to convey a message to the other 99 percent that farming is important regardless of size or type of operation.”
The wide range of size in farming operations is one reason U.S. consumers enjoy such a diversity of foods. “It allows us to have the safest and most affordable supply of food anywhere in the world and perhaps, as (House Agriculture Committee) Chairman (Frank) Lucas said, at any time in our history,” he noted.
“Secondly, all these folks help to generate economic activity that provides some degree of vitality to rural communities. About 56 percent of rural counties lost population in the 2000 Census. I haven’t seen the recent Census data, but I suspect it reflects this trend as well.”
That’s why it’s important for agriculture to speak “with a unified voice in farming and not pit ourselves against each other.”
Vilsack defended USDA against claims it has been spending too much time addressing issues of local food and organic farmers, citing efforts to expand crop insurance opportunities, making sure the disaster program is working, promoting exports, creating research centers for biofuel feedstocks, for initial bio-refinery investments and providing support for producers.
“There’s a lot going on, and it’s difficult to talk about any one thing,” he said. “You have to kind of talk about all of them. And sometimes when you talk about all of them, folks think you’re not talking about their thing.”
Vilsack delivered the keynote address to an audience of about 4,500 farmers and commodity group representatives during the Commodity Classic’s general session. He followed Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., the new chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Ag trade records
American farmers, ranchers and producers have helped lead the United States’ economic recovery by shattering agricultural trade records, creating jobs at home and ensuring affordable food for U.S. families, he said.
“We are all fortunate to be living through one of the most productive eras in history for U.S. agriculture,” said Vilsack. “American farmers and ranchers are seeing record sales of farm goods abroad and looking forward to some of the best net incomes in decades. U.S. agricultural exports for fiscal 2011 are on course to enjoy a record $47.5 billion trade surplus.”
The increased productivity is creating employment across a variety of sectors, including transportation and storage. Moreover, because American agriculture produces 86 percent of the food we consume, U.S. families spend less at the grocery store than do consumers in much of the rest of the world.
He also suggested that House members who have been demanding massive cuts in government spending should back off and give some time for changes to be made.
“The president made an important point about shared sacrifice and shared opportunities when he met with the governors earlier this week,” he told reporters in the press briefing. “Here’s my point: You’ve got to give me time to manage it. If you try to stick into six months a solution to budget problems that have accumulated over the course of 10, 15 or 20 years, mistakes are going to get made.”
The administration’s call for a freeze on federal spending in the new fiscal year, he said, would give agencies time to figure out how to make changes in an orderly manner without creating more problems than the reductions will solve.
The Commodity Classic is a joint effort of the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association and National Sorghum Producers. Besides a near-record number of farmers, this year’s Classic had 860 exhibitors at the trade show in the Tampa Convention Center.