The secretary of agriculture encouraged young people to give back to their rural communities through government service, pledged to use procurement dollars to support climate-smart food products and expressed support for farmworkers during a virtual meeting with California students.

Tom Vilsack joined former Congressman Sam Farr, a Democrat from the central coast, in a “fireside chat” as part of Greater Vision, a program sponsored by California State University Monterey Bay and the Grower-Shipper Association Foundation. The program, which was open to the public, had more than 400 participants, according to CSUMB President Eduardo Ochoa. This is the first time in its 15 years the Greater Vision program has featured a sitting secretary of agriculture.

Vilsack said he was “very disappointed” that the Senate parliamentarian didn't allow the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to remain in the senate reconciliation bill “because that would have helped, basically, provide stability for this ag workforce.” What especially struck him, Vilsack said, was that the provisions to help farmworkers came from a joint effort of unions and growers “and they worked out a very solid compromise” that passed the House with a bipartisan vote.

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But Vilsack expressed confidence in two of the department’s priorities, climate and equity. “We continue to deal with equity issues in terms of unserved and underserved populations,” he said, adding that with nearly 90% of farm families relying on off-farm income, he wants to make sure developments in climate-smart agriculture present financial opportunities. He also wants to increase the resiliency of the food system and reduce consolidation, which are weaknesses made plain during the early weeks of the pandemic. He said a grower who can show a fruit or vegetable “has been generated through sustainable practices” needs a market destination that will reward those practices. And he added that USDA can support that type of market by “using our procurement dollars.”

Vilsack also offered listeners a broad description of USDA’s myriad career opportunities from agronomic support for farmers to servicing home and business loans to climate research and he said USDA is the cabinet department that serves the most rural residents.

“Young people go into the service of their government and their country in an effort to give back,” Vilsack said, adding that at USDA “you're making a difference every single day you come to work.”

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