NASHVILLE, Tenn. — He went there. Again.
Just a little over a month after he raised eyebrows by
questioning the relevance of America’s rural population, Tom Vilsack, U.S.
secretary of agriculture, brought the “R” word up again.
This time, it was in front of some 6,000 Farm Bureau members
from across the country, gathered for the annual meeting at the American Farm
“Now, you have to ask yourself, given the relevance of rural
America, the fact that it is the supplier of most of the food that we consume in
this country that allows us to be the strongest nation on Earth because we are a
food-secure nation, it is rural America and the conservation programs and
efforts by American producers that help to guarantee a substantial amount of the
water that we consume in cities, in suburbs and around the country,” said
Vilsack, who went on to list rural America’s other contributions, including
growing feedstock for domestic energy uses and as a job creator.
“The question, given all of that contribution and more from
rural America, why is it so difficult for us to get a five-year bill through the
Congress? What has happened?”
Vilsack’s comments echoed his comments made in early
December in Washington at a Farm Journal forum.
“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill? It isn’t just the
differences of policy,” said Vilsack at the Farm Journal gathering.
“It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking
population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country,
and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”
Vilsack’s remarks then were seen partly as a response from
the Obama administration to a rural U.S. population that voted largely
Republican in the November 2012 elections and, for the most part, supported
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Sixty-one percent of rural voters
supported Romney, according to exit poll results, with less than 40 percent
Vilsack’s remarks at the forum in Washington also may have
been prompted by a personal grudge — Vilsack’s wife, Christie, lost a
congressional race to incumbent Republican Peter King in Iowa’s first
Among those supporting the campaign to get King out of
office was the Humane Society of the United States, which attempted to donate to
Vilsack’s campaign, only to have her publicly refuse the donation. However, HSUS
went on to spend some $500,000 in attack ads targeting King.
But at the AFBF gathering, speaking to one of the largest
and most powerful farm group memberships in the U.S., Vilsack offered an olive
branch. The former governor of farm-state Iowa called for the 2012 farm bill to
be acted on by Congress as soon as possible and, while reminding the AFBF
membership of a political clout he claimed has been lost, offering tips for ways
to regain that lost influence.
“Whether we like it or not, I think we have to address and
have to acknowledge that the political clout that rural America once had, it
doesn’t have as much today. And it’s going to be important and necessary for us
to have conversation about how we rebuild that political capacity, and I believe
we can,” he said.
Vilsack reemphasized the need for immediate action on the
languishing 2012 farm bill and called for elements such as programs to help
beginning farmers and ranchers start farming, for programs to expand export and
trade opportunities, for support for agricultural research, for assistance and
support of specialty crop producers and for support of biofuels and biobased
While noting that a new farm bill doesn’t “need as many
conservation programs,” he said that conservation programs do need to be
flexible to be tailored to fit specific regions and needs.
Vilsack praised the “extraordinary resilience” of American
farmers who, faced with catastrophic drought conditions during the 2012 growing
season, managed to produce close to a record corn crop, one of the top 10 corn
crops in the history of the U.S.
Vilsack also noted that the drought has lingered into 2013,
with 597 counties in 14 states already being declared disaster areas due to
ongoing drought conditions. Vilsack made the disaster declaration just the week
prior to the AFBF meeting.
The drought illustrates the vital role, he said, that a
strong safety net played for some, but not all, American farmers.
“Thank heavens we had a strong crop insurance program that
provided help and assistance. The unfortunate circumstance is that we didn’t
have a similar vehicle to assist our livestock and dairy producers who have been
through a very, very difficult time,” he said.
“We need a five-year bill, and we need it now,” he stressed,
adding the bill must be headlined with a continued strong safety net. “That
five-year bill must start with the commitment that we all agree is necessary,
which is that we have a strong safety net built on a strong and viable crop
Vilsack touched on areas where, he said, agriculture and
rural populations could start to rebuild the clout he claimed has been lost.
Those include support of administration candidates for various Cabinet positions
— Vilsack singled out the controversial Chuck Hagel nomination for secretary of
defense, but flubbed a bit when he confused John Kerry, nominee for secretary of
state, with Jack Lew, the nominee for treasury secretary.
Vilsack also mentioned a priority topic for the AFBF —
immigration reform. As Farm Bureau members gathered at the Gaylord Opryland
Hotel and Convention Center, the AFBF announced Jan. 11 that it was joining the
Agriculture Workforce Coalition, a group of 10 farm groups.
The AWC announced its proposal to reform the current
agricultural guest worker program and gave a no-confidence vote to the current
H-2A guest worker program.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for us in rural America to
embrace diversity, to embrace an immigration policy that makes sense, to embrace
comprehensive immigration reform, to embrace the solving of this problem that
has vexed us for so long, the creation of a stronger immigration system in this
country,” Vilsack said.
However, the secretary of agriculture, who announced just
prior to his address in Nashville that he will be staying on in the Obama
Cabinet for a second term, may have raised eyebrows with his reference to the
“Now, I know there are not too many fans of the Humane
Society in this room, but egg producers thought it was in their best interest to
avoid 50 different referendums, 50 different sets of rules, so they sat down
with folks and they reached common ground,” he said.
“I think the egg producers have the right idea. Now, the
issues may be different for different types of producers, but we need to be
constructively engaged at all times in conversations.”
Vilsack concluded by expressing optimism that rural America
will get back into the spotlight in the coming year and American farmers will
get the credit due them from the consuming public.
“I’ve got a feeling we’re beginning to turn the corner. I’ve
got a feeling that 2013 is going to be the year where people begin to pay a lot
of attention to what takes place n rural America,” he said.
“And I’ve got a feeling that eventually the greatest
producers, the greatest farmers in the world are going to get their due. It’s