NASHVILLE, Jan. 14, 2013 – A large part of the reason Congress did not pass a five-year farm bill is because rural America does not have the political clout it once had, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) 2013 National Convention.
“Our political leaders believed there would be no political repercussions of saying 'no farm bill,'" even when 41 national farm organizations supported one, he explained.
“We have to acknowledge that the political clout that rural America once had, it doesn’t have as much today,” he said. “It’s important to have that conversation on how we rebuild that political capacity and I think we can.”
Vilsack, who today officially acknowledged he will continue in a second term as Agriculture Secretary in President Barack Obama’s Administration, said he “has a great job” and is “pleased to continue working alongside President Obama to grow more opportunity in rural America.”
As for boosting the “political clout” of rural America, he said AFBF and other key agricultural groups should look for ways to convey agriculture’s message in a “non-conventional way.”
Noting that he knows the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) “is not popular in this room,” Vilsack reiterated his support of the United Egg Producers (UEP) arriving at a compromise with HSUS to pass legislation setting national standards for hen houses.
Although most animal agricultural representatives publicly opposed federal regulations for animal housing, Vilsack said “I think the egg producers have the right idea.”
“I’m not suggesting it’s easy but there is an opportunity here,” he said during a press briefing today. “We can use the opportunity to educate people about what’s going on in the countryside. We need to build strategic alliances.”
He said these alliances and “proactive messages” might help agriculture and rural America’s political clout match the relevance of what it provides to the nation.
“To make sure there’s not a repeat of 2012, we need a five-year bill and we need it now,” he said, adding that a new farm bill must begin with a strong safety net, particularly for specialty crop, dairy and livestock producers left without a viable insurance program or any program at all.
“In polite company, I’d say I’m disappointed in Congress,” he told the AFBF closing session. “I’ve used different words to express my disappointment in the lack of a farm bill in smaller settings.”
Noting the potential for a smaller baseline this year, he said the extension of the 2008 farm bill creates confusion. The unpopular Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) program is extended, but Vilsack said “we will provide an opportunity for people to opt in or opt out if they became disenchanted with the ACRE program.”
Although not yet knowing the 2013 budget and waiting for Congress to address spending issues creates significant uncertainty, Vilsack said he believes Congress recognizes the importance of a strong crop insurance program for producers.
“Congress recognizes it as a lynchpin,” he said, but “the larger question” is how certain it is that the money in direct payments will be available. “What Congress extends, it can take away.”
He added that crop insurance, continued strong export programs, credit made available to young and disadvantaged farmers, as well as research funding would be priorities for USDA in the next round of farm bill discussions.
Vilsack concluded his speech to AFBF by saying, “I got a feeling 2013 is going to be a year where people start paying attention to what happens in rural America.”
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