Tough Words for Tough Times
By Bruce Knight
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When I was at the 2012 Farm Journal Forum last week, I enjoyed seeing old friends, chatting about key issues and discussing the next steps for the farm bill. Of course, I listened with a keen ear to Secretary Vilsack’s keynote speech. He spoke forcefully and forthrightly on the need for farmers and ranchers to understand that the majority of Americans live in urban areas and don’t fully comprehend the relevance of agriculture to their daily lives.
He said the Administration’s intention is not to write a farm bill, but to provide the technical assistance and facilitate the conversation and negotiations needed to get one passed. He challenged the audience to move past the concerns about increased regulation and climate change. He noted the need for a new attitude on the part of Rural America. That means, Secretary Vilsack said, replacing a preservation mindset with a growth mindset, taking a proactive approach rather than simply reacting to the messages of others, embracing diversity and recognizing that there are many more people in urban areas than in the country. He called for “an adult conversation with folks in Rural America,” emphasizing all the benefits rural areas bring to the Nation and looking at the farm bill as “more than the safety net.”
Listening to the speech, I almost felt scolded. I could feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck—feelings of defense and frustration mixed with unease. Not unlike some times when I had to face my father after things had gone wrong—really wrong. Like when I wrapped the chisel plow into the fence or broke his 20-foot dump rake in half or tipped over the grain wagon. Maybe the trouble really wasn’t all my fault, but I was involved in the problem, and now I needed to be part of the solution as well.
What Secretary Vilsack had to say is not what everyone wanted to hear, and I don’t agree with everything he said, but I applaud his honesty in sharing his perspective. And I have to admit I left the Farm Journal Forum with the Secretary’s speech running through my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about what he said. No one likes feeling that they’ve been taken to task, especially when they’ve just been taking care of business, producing the food and fiber this nation needs at reasonable prices that make us the envy of the world. Just minding the farm, so to speak, in the midst of one of the worst droughts this nation has ever experienced.
After I returned home, spent time with family and friends and slept on it, I think I came to a more balanced perspective. I reflected on the "Us vs. Them" struggles between organic and traditional farming a few years ago. What we discovered then is that there’s more than enough room for both approaches in American agriculture. That tug-of-war has died down, and we’ve adopted policies that can accommodate multiple farming strategies. The key, I think, was removing the idea that one group wins at the expense of another. Rather, we’re all in this together.
I don’t want to further characterize what the Secretary said or try to interpret it for you. You can read his remarks in the transcript for yourself. I do believe we need to give some serious thought to the perspective he has offered on why it’s so difficult to get support for a farm bill, and then we all need to get busy and work together to make things happen.
About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.
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