The Biden administration’s top agriculture official wants Congress and states across the country to focus on a broader vision for the nation’s agricultural economy.

Speaking Monday to members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack reiterated his familiar refrain of “more, new and better markets” to boost producer profitability. But he also pleaded with the assembled audience to ensure the vision goes beyond USDA efforts as Congress begins to draft a new farm bill and state legislatures around the country convene for the new year.

“I know most of you have dedicated your life to something like this; I know that. But I think this is a framework that we can get behind,” Vilsack said Monday in remarks delivered on the campus of Gallaudet University in Washington.

He said the members could drive the message home by communicating an underlying choice of “do we want a system that benefits the few, or do we want a system that benefits many and most?”

The remarks come ahead of congressional deliberations on farm bill reauthorization. The House and Senate Ag Committees will both welcome freshman members to their panels — two in the Senate and 20 in the House, and Vilsack, a veteran of the 2014 farm bill process during his time as secretary during the Obama administration, said educating those members ahead of the reauthorization could lead to more support for his broader income framework.

Vilsack framed his comments around his push to diversify income streams for producers beyond those they have used most commonly  sales of crops or livestock or the collection of various government support payments. Instead, the secretary argued as he unfurled his vision on a whiteboard, farmers should also be able to count on making money from things like value-added agriculture, climate-smart efforts, or broader use of local and regional marketing.

The "more, new and better markets” slogan and USDA efforts surrounding it are familiar to those who have heard Vilsack speak throughout his second tenure as the nation’s agriculture secretary, but on Monday he also also offered pointed encouragement to federal and state leaders making funding decisions critical to food and ag policy.

The upcoming farm bill, Vilsack noted, could be a “tremendous opportunity to reinforce that the values of this country are bottom-up and middle-out,” echoing familiar remarks offered by President Joe Biden.

“The few are going to be fine,” Vilsack emphasized. “If you make more than $1 million gross income, you’re going to be probably OK. But if you’re not making money, and you’ve got to work a second job, a third job, to do what you love to do … we can do better. You know we can do better.”

Vilsack opened his comments by outlining steps already taken at USDA to diversify income streams, including federal investments in smaller meatpacking facilities and work to promote feedstock demand for sustainable aviation fuel. But he also pointed to funding from the American Rescue Plan and Inflation Reduction Act that could be available to other entities.

States, Vilsack said, are “sitting on a bunch of money” that could be used to help bolster domestic agricultural input manufacturing or build up the infrastructure for carbon credits that would pay producers for the sequestration efforts.

“State and local governments have resources and ought to be using them to support this,” Vilsack argued before making similar points about nonprofit organizations or other entities with available funding that could help further his goals.

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“If they're really interested in a vibrant rural economy, if they're really interested in sustainable agriculture, if they really care about climate change, if they really do believe we’ve got to transition from fossil fuels to something different, if they have deep concerns about veterans or underserved producers, this is a model, this is a framework in which they can make investments,” he added.

Repeating a frustration he raised on Sunday's Agri-Pulse Open Mic, Vilsack offered disagreement with comments by his predecessor — Trump administration Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue — that argued the nature of American businesses, including agriculture, was that “the big get bigger and the small go out.” Perdue’s following quote dismissed the notion of “guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.” 

In a counter, Vilsack sought to encourage support for small- and medium-sized operations, arguing that concentrating land ownership and agricultural production in fewer hands was detrimental to the long-term health of rural communities.

“It translates to a central business district in a small town being boarded up, it translates into schools not having enough kids, so they’ve got to merge,” he said. “And it sure as heck translates into those difficult conversations at coffee tables and dinner tables around rural families, where there are literally people telling their kids, ‘Don’t come back.’”

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