WASHINGTON, July 25, 2012 -Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expects President Obama to win a second term, in part because the rural economy is improving, he told Agri-Pulse in a wide-ranging interview with our editorial team. But Vilsack declined to speculate about whether he would continue at USDA.

“I am convinced in my own mind that the president will be re-elected, in part because the economy in rural areas is better than a lot of other places. It’s turning the corner and it’s gaining momentum,” he said. “As people understand and appreciate that, they’ll give the president a second opportunity to finish his work. And then he’ll have some hard decisions to make in terms of what his second administration looks like,” Vilsack said.

“I don’t know what my future is because I think it’s up to the president and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to assume what the president would or would not do with reference to USDA,” he added. “It’s the president’s call.”

However, Vilsack dropped a hint that he won’t be reluctant to continue. “This is a great job,” he said. “I love this job. I love the people I’m working with. I’m proud of the work we’ve done. I think we have done a good job under some very difficult circumstances.”

Asked about the assessment that the president’s popularity suffers in rural areas, despite record farm income and farm exports, he suggested that the next three months will be an ongoing effort to polish the perception of Obama in the country. “That’s the great thing about campaigns. It’s oftentimes hard to do in a non-campaign context because people are not focused on it.”

“We’re making sure that folks understand there’s a reason why there are record exports,” Vilsack said. “Obviously a lot of it has to do with the producers. A lot of it has to do with the system we have. But it’s also the president’s focus on exports. He basically required us to take a strategic and thoughtful look at how we were approaching exports and we now are substantially more disciplined in our approach. We have had positive results.”

He says the Obama administration has made “a more specific link between conservation and outdoor recreation” and helped lead to a record acreage enrolled in conservation programs. Efforts to promote a bio-based economy have meant jobs and more opportunities for marketing farm products, he said. A “record investment” in local and regional food systems has helped small- and medium-scale farmers find markets, he said. “All of this is strategic and targeted.”

He dismissed the idea that his emphasis on the direct marketing niche was diverting attention from the problems of commercial agriculture. “I’m intrigued by the fact that, in this food, farms and jobs bill that passed the Senate there was an increased emphasis and level of support – by Sens. Stabenow and Roberts ‑ for local and regional food systems in the horticulture title.” 

To him, that is “a recognition that the point we made when we began 3½ years ago – that some people scoffed at – now has economic juice behind it. This is a multi-billion-dollar opportunity, one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture. There is no reason why we should discourage that. We’ve had a 57% increase in farmers markets in the past 3 1/2 years. We now see producers in mainline operations looking for those value-added opportunities.”


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