On Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson met with Iowa farmers and visited a biofuel facility. While continuing the Obama administration’s push for alternative energy sources, both claimed to have been enlightened and insisted the EPA is not the enemy of agriculture.

“We had a chance to visit a biodiesel facility in Newton,” said Vilsack during an afternoon press conference. “We got a good briefing from representatives from the renewable fuel industry about … improving the bottom line for farmers and ranchers as well as creating jobs in rural America.”

For Vilsack’s comments on ethanol and food prices, see Vilsack: no correlation between food prices and ethanol.

The pair also learned “about additional feedstocks to use in working towards the Renewable Fuels Standard.” 

According to Vilsack, Iowa agriculture leaders had “45 minutes to ask questions of both of us. It was a good opportunity to have an exchange of information and (Jackson) was given the opportunity to clear any myths or misconceptions … about the actions of EPA.”

Those leaders “could not remember the last time an EPA administrator had visited Iowa and … sat down with farmers and ranchers.”

This was not the first time Jackson has tried to deal with the “myths and misconceptions” about the EPA. In early March, the agency released a document citing five common myths as Jackson testified before an unhappy House Agriculture Committee.

For more, see EPA slammed in House hearing.

Surprisingly, while on the Tuesday tour, Jackson claimed not to have heard from anyone asking EPA to be hands off towards agriculture. Instead, “what I saw today is an industry that recognizes that the regulations and standards under environmental law are for the protection of all Americans. I saw incident after incident, example after example, of people who aren’t asking not to be regulated, not asking to be completely left alone, but probably have first-hand – better than most Americans’ – knowledge that clean water is very important.”

Jackson continued: “I didn’t have anyone – not one person – walk up and say ‘please, just go away. Take EPA away.’ What they asked was that we make sure (EPA) rules and regulations reflect reality on the ground, the challenges that farmers and ranchers face.  

“We talked about, over and over again, why EPA is compelled to do things. For instance, the (potential EPA regulation of) dust came up. We talked about the fact that fine particles and particulate matter under the Clean Air Act is a killer. It kills hundreds of thousands of Americans prematurely every year.

“So, they don’t want us to go away. Of course they don’t want Americans to be unprotected. They want to ensure our rules make sense on the ground – that we aren’t regulating dust when we should be regulating soot. That’s more than reasonable.”

The Tuesday interactions allowed Jackson to “learn” that whether dealing with livestock operations, row-crops, or biodiesel “it’s about innovation. There really is remarkable innovation happening right here on the ground. Innovation I saw … was innovation in terms of business: to make crops more productive, operations more efficient. (These are) things that are really good for the farmer or rancher but have great impact on water quality and air quality. It’s true win-win…

“EPA has a specific mission. But there’s no reason for us to do that in competition with agriculture. In fact, what I learned here today just reinforces my belief that there are tremendous win-win opportunities.”

Conservation programs were also on the tour schedule – especially work being done by Iowa farmers in the Upper Mississippi River Basin “pursuant to the USDA program that’s a specialized watershed program,” said Vilsack. As a result, “we’ve begun an assessment of whether or not those conservation techniques are actually effective, to be able to quantify how much soil erosion was avoided, how much nitrogen and phosphorus is no longer getting into the rivers and streams and, ultimately, the Mississippi.

When better able to “quantify and measure these conservation results (it might mean) creating markets that might attract private sector capital and investment for folks looking for ways to reduce their environmental footprint.”

This will be done in concert with the EPA, said Vilsack, so “those who engage aggressively and appropriately in conservation would get regulatory certainty in terms of their operations.”

Jackson said such collaboration is “an opportunity for EPA to do two things it does well. One, EPA spends a lot of time quantifying the impact on water quality of reductions. We think a partnership with USDA, the state and commodity groups will be fruitful on both sides.

“Also, we’re in charge of water quality protection. And we’re seeing that happen downstream because of the folks who have stepped in Iowa. And they can help their neighbors, frankly, understand the importance and impact of these rules.”

At that point, Jackson wanted to shoot down another myth. “There is fear, real fear, in Iowa that we’ll take what we’re doing in Chesapeake Bay and transfer it here without regard to what’s already happening on the ground. Today’s visit gave me the opportunity to ensure that isn’t our approach. Chesapeake is special and they shouldn’t necessarily assume we’ll use those same tools everywhere across the country.”