SAN DIEGO, Jan. 11, 2015—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today addressed farmers’ concerns about trade, environmental regulations, infrastructure and tax reform, among other topics during the first-ever town hall style meeting at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 96th Annual Convention in San Diego.

He first addressed President Barack Obama’s recent controversial action to normalize trade with Cuba by emphasizing the benefit to U.S. agriculture. Additionally, he said the people living under Cuba’s Communist regime will be exposed to American-quality goods. “They’ll begin to ask questions…this will begin to change the way the Cuban people are governed…that’s the power of trade,” Vilsack said.

In other trade matters, he told the group of Farm Bureau members that Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is essential for completing the Trans Pacific Partnership with Asia-Pacific countries.

If Congress passes TPA, which gives the president the authority to present a trade deal to Congress for an up-or-down vote without amendments, negotiating partners in other nations will be more confident in the U.S. Trade Representative’s promises, he said. However, “We need to convince people that trade is a good thing,” he said, adding that a majority of Americans mistakenly think that expanded trade costs jobs.

In response to questions from Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill regarding that state’s water quality issues and efforts to regulate farm soil and water management, Vilsack again emphasized public education as essential to preventing barriers for the farm.   

Noting that “a record number” of farmers are enrolled in some kind of conversation program with USDA, Vilsack said, “I don’t think there is an understanding among the general public of the magnitude of work that’s already being done and investment already taking place.”

He said the first round of projects under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill, will be announced in the next couple of weeks, and that the program will help broadcast conservation efforts taking place on American farms. The RCPP promotes coordination between the Natural Resources Conservation Service and its partners in the private sector to deliver conservation assistance to producers and landowners.

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Vilsack also briefly addressed the most contentious government regulation the Farm Bureau is fighting—the “waters of the United States” definition proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

He said USDA’s power is limited in the matter, but that he has worked with EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to convey on-the-ground implications of the rule, which the Farm Bureau says is much too broad and indicates a government power grab over private land.

“There’s an expectation that USDA can impose its will on other agencies and that’s just not the way it works,” Vilsack said. But, “We make an effort at USDA to educate our sister agencies about the impact of a regulation.”

He added that the comment period for the proposal allows the Farm Bureau and other groups and individuals to provide information. “There’s a process that gives the ability to say ‘you’ve gone too far'."

Earlier during the convention, AFBF President Bob Stallman said the proposed waters of the U.S. rule would entail excessive restrictions and regulatory costs that can “make the business of farming and ranching economically unsustainable.”


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