Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack has been a lawyer and a politician most of his career. But he has also had more than a passing acquaintance with the real, live, row crop farmers in his adopted state of Iowa.
Speaking at his Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation hearing to be President Obama's agriculture secretary, Vilsack recalled farmers “bringing grocery sacks into my office and dumping their receipts on my desk” so that he could prepare their tax returns.
“So I have seen firsthand how difficult farming is, and how difficult it is to make a living,” said Vilsack, referring to his years as a lawyer in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, during the agricultural recession in the mid-1980s. He later became Mt. Pleasant's mayor and went on to serve two terms as Iowa's governor, beginning in 1998.
During his opening statement at the hearing, Vilsack said he will do all that is in his power to “administer a robust safety net and create real and meaningful opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers to compete” if confirmed as agriculture secretary.
He also pledged to implement the 600 provisions and 15 titles of the 2008 farm bill “promptly and consistent with congressional intent” and to leverage the financial commitment of the farm bill and any stimulus bills to help rural America.
Prior to the hearing, Vilsack confirmed he has something else in common with many of America's farmers: He and his wife, Christie, have been receiving Conservation Reserve Payments of more than $7,500 per year on a portion of a 582-acre farm they own in Davis County in southeast Iowa.
Vilsack listed the payments on his financial disclosure form and asked USDA officials for a waiver allowing him to continue to receive the payments. Otherwise, he would have to break his CRP contract and return $60,000 he's received from the government since 2000. None of the ag committee members questioned him about the CRP payments.
In the two hours of hearings, Vilsack deftly fielded a series of fairly routine questions from committee members, who mainly wanted assurances he would implement the farm bill as written and work with the committee to help restore prosperity in rural America.
It was clear from the beginning of the hearing that Vilsack was not likely to face the kind of questioning some other Obama administration nominees have met when they appeared before Senate committees.
“I cannot think of a better choice for someone to be secretary of agriculture than Gov. Vilsack,” said Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin in welcoming his fellow Iowan to the confirmation hearing.
“He (Vilsack) knows production agriculture and what is needed to promote profitability and a better future, including for beginning farmers and ranchers,” said Harkin. “He gained a lot of experience the hard way — representing farmers in wrenching financial situations as a county seat lawyer during the farm crisis of the 1980s.”
Vilsack noted he was the first Iowan asked the serve as secretary of agriculture since Henry Wallace, “who served with extraordinary distinction during a period of historic challenges” in the Depression era (and later became vice president of the United States under President Franklin Roosevelt).
“Today, our country and the Department of Agriculture again face historic challenges,” he said. “Farmers and ranchers experience volatile markets while credit tightens. Small towns and rural communities across the country continue to lose people and jobs while critical infrastructure crumbles. These towns and communities find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with national and global economies.”
These challenges, he said, require a compelling new vision for the Agriculture Department with the attention, dedication and leadership to make it happen.
“The president-elect has called upon each of us to meet these challenges. If confirmed, I pledge to work with all the energy I have to do my part to make sure the Agriculture Department does its part; to do its part in administering a robust safety net and create real and meaningful opportunities for farmers and ranchers to compete.”
He said he also intends to work to place America in the forefront of efforts to aggressively address energy independence and global climate change and enhance the safety of its food supply and reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses.
“I am under no illusions about the difficulty we face,” he noted. “While I recognize the commitment that Congress has made in the passage of the 2008 farm bill, USDA's job is to implement that far-ranging piece of legislation promptly and consistently with congressional intent. If confirmed, I commit to work immediately to implement the 600 provisions and 15 titles of the farm bill, including prompt implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the disaster payment program.”
Vilsack didn't refer to his predecessor, Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, but the latter has been criticized for failing to implement the farm bill in a timely manner as Congress intended. Several senators asked Vilsack if he would follow the intent of Congress on such issues as federal crop insurance, renewable energy and food and nutrition programs.
Neither Vilsack nor committee members made more than a passing reference to what may be one of the more contentious issues he will face — writing the rules for the new payment limit regulations contained in the 2008 law.
President Obama has said that he favors tightening the rules for farm program payments if, in fact, such programs are being abused.
One Mid-South senator who has argued against restricting payments to larger, commercial farmers, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., urged Vilsack to be a champion for America's producers and a leader in the fight against hunger.
“Our food security, conservation of natural resources, rural economic vitality, and increasingly our energy independence are all tied to the success of American agriculture,” Lincoln said. “USDA must promote policies that effectively support the diversity of our country's agriculture industries and help ensure future generations can enjoy the blessings of American agriculture.”
She said the United States is unrivaled in its supplies of affordable and safe food. “One key reason for this is the fact that food is produced in all corners of the nation and there is great diversity among the crops we grow.”
A member of a seventh generation farm family, Lincoln did express concerns about the new payment limit rules issued by USDA and urged Vilsack to reach out to all crops and regions as the new secretary. She also asked that he help develop crop insurance policies beneficial to rice producers and help improve the new SURE program.
Vilsack assured Lincoln and others he would be a secretary who serves the entire nation and not just one state or one region of the country.
Lincoln also pressed Vilsack on his vision to carry out President Obama's goal of ending child hunger by 2015. The Arkansas senator has been a strong voice in the fight against hunger and is the founder and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Hunger Caucus.
“I believe ending child hunger by 2015 is an achievable goal and a mission I will fight for with the Obama administration,” Lincoln said. “The first step toward this goal must be a strong reauthorization of child nutrition programs in 2009 with a significant investment that can reach more hungry children. These initiatives provide the fastest, most direct way to combat child hunger.”
“None of us should be satisfied that there are children going to bed hungry” in a rich, powerful nation like the United States, Vilsack said, noting the demand for the federal nutrition programs USDA oversees has been increasing as economic conditions worsened.