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New secretary of agriculture speaks to U.S. Wheat, NAWG boards

By Jennifer M. Latzke

NEW SECRETARY--With less than a month on the job, newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks to the boards of U.S. Wheat Associates, Inc., and the National Association of Wheat Growers. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

He's only been appointed for a little more than three weeks, but U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is optimistic the U.S. Department of Agriculture can become a leaner and more efficient agency under his watch.

As part of his debut to agricultural organizations, Vilsack visited the Joint Board Meeting of the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates, Inc., Feb. 9, in Washington, D.C. Secretary Vilsack will be working for agriculture in a political environment that will place more emphasis on environmental and labor issues, and in a time of an economic depression, which may affect its future policies and programs.

Environment and farm programs

Vilsack told wheat producers that, with an increasing environmental emphasis, they should expect to see some of their farm subsidies, already under fire from many in the WTO and from Congress, to be coupled with climate change and conservation efforts.

"We should use the climate change discussion as a different way to provide resources to farmers, so it isn't as trade distorting as some claim our subsidies to be," he said. Specifically under fire in the future will be the direct payments wheat growers now receive under the 2008 farm bill.

"I strongly suggest we look into using climate change to deal with this," Vilsack said, in response to a grower asking about an alternative to direct payments. "It would fix the man-on-the-street perception. You'd be getting a payment because of your help with the climate change problem, and not just because you are a farmer. It's hard for ordinary people to understand how we have the cheapest food supply, but why should farmers just get checks? They understand the need for counter-cyclical and conservation payments, though." In the new political atmosphere, trading direct payments for something tied with environmental conservation may be the new way for ag, he said.

"We should be a national leader in the discussion on energy and climate change," he added. "It's an opportunity to develop income opportunities for farmers." Vilsack said since farmers and ranchers are already using land in ways that conserve water and soil, there should be ways for them to be compensated for their efforts in reducing ag's carbon footprint.

"We must be forceful about ag's place at the table in this conversation," Vilsack said. It's his goal to figure out what system would work for U.S. growers to be compensated under, and to cooperate with other agencies in monitoring any system.

Reviewing policies

David Cleavinger, president of NAWG, told Secretary Vilsack he appreciated the extended comment period over the definition of "actively engaged farmers" in the 2008 farm bill. Vilsack said the comment period was extended as part of President Barack Obama's request to review all policies passed in the waning days of the Bush administration. However, he found it odd that only a handful of comments had been received by USDA on the actively engaged definition.

One wheat grower mentioned one reason for few comments was that some may have feared that this could be a way for USDA to spotlight commentators for further review.

"That doesn't seem right to me," he replied. "We're asking your advice because we need it and not because we want to go after you."

Trade agreements

Since there was not yet a confirmation of a U.S. Trade Representative at the time of the meeting, nor a confirmed U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Secretary Vilsack didn't want to speculate about the country's position on the Doha round of the WTO, or any pending bilateral trade agreements. However, he told producers to expect environmental and labor issues to be important considerations in future trade discussions. Vilsack also said he was supportive of bilateral trade agreements, more open markets, and would aggressively pursue ways to get ag trade accomplished.

One trade topic that he would speak about was the status of the Foreign Agricultural Service within USDA. FAS is one agency that uses producer checkoff dollars with federal appropriations to promote U.S. foreign market access for agriculture.

FAS is currently in financial difficulties because of inadequate federal funding. While the amount of funding hasn't been increased, the amount of work FAS has been charged to do by Congress has. To make do, the agency has been securing operating expenses from other parts of its budget. However, those places are becoming tapped out and the agency may have to furlough workers.

"The FAS plays an important role in promoting trade," Vilsack said. "It is in a multimillion dollar budget deficit and we must get that budget right so that FAS can stop playing tricks to do its work. We must get Congress to provide the resources for FAS."

Of particular interest to wheat growers on both boards was the recent language attached to the stimulus bill, calling for government agencies to buy American first. This protectionist act could adversely affect future U.S. wheat export markets. Secretary Vilsack said he was not in support of using the stimulus for protectionist agendas, and that free and open fair trade would be in the best interest for all.

"I think it's a reflection of the economic anxiety today," he said. "People look inward at a time they should be looking outward."

Balancing organic and production ag

A North Dakota wheat farmer, Doug Goehring, asked the secretary how USDA will deal with the conflicting needs of organic and sustainable agricultural production under his watch.

"I look for as many diverse opportunities as possible for farmers to survive," Vilsack replied. "I have dedicated my public life to finding multiple ways for farmers to succeed," Vilsack continued. "I'm not going to shut out any one segment. It's difficult to coexist, but we have to. We can't shut anyone out.

"However, there are 6 billion people in the world, and the amount of land available to farm is finite," Vilsack said. Rising populations mean farmers must find ways of doing more on the land they have, he added.

"I want the organic farmer to survive and also recognize the role of production ag in the world," Vilsack said. "It won't be easy, not when peoples' emotions are attached, but we need to recognize the role each plays."

Strong ag support

Vilsack left the wheat boards with one strong message of support from his office as they return to their homes and farms.

"I support production agriculture and I want Americans to understand the role agriculture plays in their lives, every day," he said. "Sometimes we take for granted what you do every day.

"Our role is to make sure people understand how hard the business of agriculture is," he added. "This is a great business and a noble business. You can't name one significant issue today that doesn't come through my department. National security, health care, immigration, the economy, energy-there is not one single issue that doesn't intersect at USDA. But you wouldn't believe the number of people in this town who don't know where USDA is located. And, we have half of the Mall!"

Vilsack said it's easy for farmers to assume people don't know and don't care to know about farming and ranching. "You have got to talk ag up," he said. "We're in this together in the struggle to recognize what you do."

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807, or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.

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