Vilsack addresses hot button issues during virtual town hall meeting

Jan Shepel
Correspondent
U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack tackles questions on hot button issues during Sept. 2 virtual town hall.

In a town hall style online meeting with farmers and reporters, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said his agency will do what it can to “get to the other side of the pandemic” including pandemic payments to farmers, changes to the margin protection program and stabilization of payments between Class I and Class III milk for dairy farmers.

Vilsack joined Clinton Griffiths, editor of Farm Journal magazine and host of AgDay TV, during the virtual town hall where the Ag Secretary fielded questions on many hot button issues, including new program payments that have been authorized for farmers and more. Vilsack said the payments will help producers, including organic farmers and biofuel producers, who were left behind in other pandemic payment programs.

During the town hall meeting, Sept. 2, Vilsack said that the USDA was making plans to help farmers “build back better” to take advantage of new opportunities that will in turn produce more profit for a greater number of farmers.

The Biden administration is also taking steps to increase exports this year that he hopes will produce farm income for U.S. farmers that will exceed the 20-year average for the first time in 14 years.

Trade talks are aimed at Southeast Asia, he said. The Vietnam government has agreed to reduce tariffs on U.S. imports and the China trade agreement, forged under the Trump administration is at the end of Phase 1.

Vilsack said a new format will be used for the government’s emergency food purchasing and his agency is looking at ways to link up producers with those programs so the farmers who grow the food will have access to those contracts.

By making some of those changes and allowing producers to link up with those purchasing programs, it may help farmers take advantage of the very difficult circumstances created by the pandemic, he said, and provide a new income opportunity for farmers.

In the meat sector, Vilsack said his agency wants to strengthen the administration of the Packers and Stockyards Act. His agency aims to “make sure farmers get a fair shake in the market and help existing processing capacity stay in business.” A grant program will help meat processors – even the smallest ones – with funds to modernize and expand their processing capacity.

Mother Nature

Vilsack said there is a lot of activity in a variety of areas at USDA. “We have a number of challenges from Mother Nature.”

Wildfires and hurricanes, occurring at the same time, have created a “very, very busy time at USDA,” he said.

Officials are assessing damages on site in areas that have been hard-hit by hurricane Ida. A recently declared disaster declaration for Louisiana opens up potential assistance in terms of loans, he said, and there may be additional secretarial designations for further assistance. Those things can help farmers with things like crop insurance, emergency farm loans, conservation assistance, and reimbursement for loss of livestock.

“We will deal with these emergency requests as quickly as we can. We know that every day matters.”

In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida damaged barges during an aerial tour Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, in St. Charles Parish, La. Vilsack said one of the major challenges is to keep existing grain terminal and shipping facilities functional – and there is an immediate need to keep grain moving.

One of the major challenges is to keep existing grain terminal and shipping facilities functional – and there is an immediate need to keep grain moving.

Vilsack repeatedly emphasized that there are resources in the current infrastructure bill, which is now before Congress, to make improvements to railways and roads. “The transportation system we have is one of the things that allows us to get ahead of competitors across the globe,” he said. “They are catching up and we need to put resources into our infrastructure.”

The wildfires in the West, brought on by a heat wave, drought and climate changes are being made worse by conditions that have developed over many years, he said. “We have tried to do forest management on the cheap,” he added, which has only made the problem worse.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill is “so vital and necessary,” he said. “Congress needs to do their job. We didn’t get into this mess overnight and we aren’t going to get out of it overnight.”

In discussions about climate change, there is “clearly a change of attitude between when I was secretary before and now.” In American agriculture, “we need to be serious” about addressing climate change. Vilsack talked about things like making sure conservation programs are adequately funded so that resources can be funneled to farmers so they can address climate challenges and help the nation find solutions.

Vilsack said farmers can use USDA as a link to take advantage of opportunities in the marketplace that is beginning to reward them for conservation practices that in turn help with climate change.

The agency, he said, is looking at ways to take existing USDA programs and expand on them. Conservation on farms leads to cleaner water, protection of soils and other benefits, he said. “We know the marketplace is beginning to recognize the market value in telling consumers that the product has been raised in a sustainable manner,” he said.

Vilsack said the USDA has a role to play in reducing the risks for farmers who want to put these practices in place to reap environmental benefits, “so it will be easier for farmers to take advantage of what’s out there in the marketplace.”

Though the diplomatic and trading relationship with China is “very complicated” Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says it makes good sense for the US to retain that relationship.

China trade deal

As Phase 1 of the China trade deal ends, Vilsack said he expects that we will continue to see purchases from that nation. “China needs us. They need the food that we can supply.”

Though the diplomatic and trading relationship with China is “very complicated” he said it makes good sense for us to retain that relationship. Globally the question becomes “whether our democratic system is better for the 21st century than their system.”

The U.S.-China relationship involves multiple layered relationships and on any given day something can affect that, he said. “Our job at the Department of Agriculture is to look for ways to continue that relationship and to do so in the context of looking for ways to expand opportunities” for U.S. farmers.

That’s why other trading relationships are being pursued with nations like Vietnam. “We need to expand the trading field and embrace trade with other nations – like those in Africa. Talks are now underway with Kenya.”

Vilsack was asked about a larger trade deal – the CPTPP, which is a new title for the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership also known as TPP-11.

That agreement involves Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. It evolved from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which was negotiated by the Obama administration. The United States then withdrew from the agreement under the Trump administration.

Vilsack said trade negotiators must always ask the question – if they get a trade agreement, will it pass Congress? “It has to have a majority of votes and questions have been raised on both sides of the aisle.”

He returned to domestic infrastructure. “We have to build a strong foundation domestically and create the kind of infrastructure that makes people feel secure in order to get those (Congressional) votes. The first step in that process is to get support domestically and prepare ourselves to be in a position to do trade talks.

“People have to be in a position that domestically our folks don’t feel that trade is the root of all evil,” he added.

Staffing up

Vilsack commented that he is still in the process of staffing up at the USDA. “We have 3,000 to 4,000 people fewer in the USDA than when I was secretary last time.” Vilsack served as USDA chief during all eight years of the Obama administration. So in addition to dealing with the natural disasters and other challenges, he is still trying to bring enough staff in to cope with the work.

He was also asked about the potential for Covid relief for the ethanol industry; many ethanol plants are owned and operated by farmer cooperatives and took a hit during the supply chain disruption of the last year. He commented that there was “no assistance for the biofuel industry in last administration.” Now, the USDA is using discretion in providing assistance to the renewable fuels industry. For starters, he said, this administration will “not play with the waiver system as was done in the last administration.”

The USDA recently said it will allocate $700 million to support biofuel producers under a new direct pandemic assistance program.

In the very near future, Vilsack said, “we are going to see whole new vistas open up – in aviation and in the marine fuel areas. Higher ethanol blends will become more available and it will expand new opportunities.”

Electric vehicles are an expanding industry, he noted, but the “reality is that we’re not going to stop making cars that burn gas. Even if car companies stop building them by 2035, there will still be gas burning cars on the road for another period of time.

“There is still going to be a need for and investment in the ethanol industry.”

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, right, checks out the meat counter at Rustic Cuts with co-owner Jake Driver, left, on Friday, July 9, 2021 in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  He says the US meat industry needs to tell its story and build confidence with domestic consumers and globally.

Mandatory COOL

Asked about mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for U.S. produced beef, pork and poultry, Vilsack said “the reality is that we tried that and on each occasion the World Trade Organization knocked it down. It’s difficult to fashion a program that is going to pass muster with the WTO. It’s a very difficult situation.”

Vilsack said he sees a future for “real meat” producers. “The world population is going to continue to grow. And that will require the beef, pork, poultry, and dairy industries to continue to grow. I don’t see the plant-based protein industries as a way to replace the livestock industry. Some consumers will want those products.” But there will continue to “be enough demand for everything.”

The U.S. meat industry needs to tell its story and build confidence with domestic consumers and globally. “We have a good story to tell today and it will be a better one in the future,” he said. That’s the best way to respond to products that are made from cell products in a lab.

Vilsack said that the Senate has to make a decision on immigration reform and its impact on farm labor, saying  “Everybody in that Congress knows that the current system is broken that the H-2A system is broken."

Farm labor

The House of Representatives passed the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in March, which established a system for agricultural workers to earn temporary status with an eventual option to become a permanent resident. The act would also amend the existing H-2A temporary ag worker visa program. But no action has been taken on the measure in the Senate.

Asked about immigration reform and its impact on farm labor, Vilsack said that the Senate has to make a decision.  “Everybody in that Congress knows that the current system is broken that the H-2A system is broken. It’s a tragedy to have farm laborers who have worked hard for 10, 15, 20 years, who have come here for a job, send money home. Then they are fearful they won’t be able to go home and see their family and get back here to do their job.”

On the subject of immigration reform, Vilsack said he appeared at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and some of the members were “literally shouting at me.” He said it is his “hope and anticipation” that the Senate will be able to come to a reasonable solution on immigration – a compromise that “represents stability and consistency so that we have a well-care-for, stable workforce.”

Vilsack commented that lawmakers can be reluctant to solve problems because they aren’t sure they have the right solution.

Immigration reform, “clearly needs to be done,” Vilsack said. “It is clearly important to the future of agriculture, especially dairy.”

Vilsack said that he appreciated the opportunity to address an agriculture audience in a way that gave him more time to flesh out the issues. “These questions in agriculture are not easy to answer in 30-second sound bites.” He said that this USDA is trying to thoughtfully address solutions that offer more ways to help farmers solve problems and that will also create new opportunities for agricultural producers.

“I’m optimistic about the future,” he said, and wants the agency to “show the way” on climate solutions, sustainability, and new opportunities for farmers.