The following are excerpts from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's speech late last week at the Agricultural Outlook Forum 2009. The Daily Green added some formatting, but did not alter the text of the speech.
He (Obama) was very clear. He had three goals for this department in addition to all of the obvious goals:
So that was one set of instructions that dictate how I see the future of USDA.
The second occurred just after I became Secretary of Agriculture when we learned that there was a problem with peanut butter as a result of a company not doing what they should have done to maintain the safety and security of that product. And while it didn't directly relate to USDA's job, it did relate to food safety and the important role that food safety plays in protecting the integrity of markets.
It's fairly clear after my conversations recently with those associated with the peanut industry in Georgia that they are feeling direct consequences of that one company's failure to maintain a safe and secure product.
So that shapes the direction and future of USDA.
What also faces the direction of USDA is the financial challenges that Larry Summers articulated today for this country, and specifically the stimulus, the Reinvestment and Recovery Act that the President signed, and USDA's role in helping to turn this economy around.
And $28 billion of the $800 billion stimulus package (3%) was directed to USDA with the instruction to get it to working in the economy as quickly as possible. And then there were the trends, not just the trends that Joe [Glauber] has outlined today, but the trends that were outlined in the Ag Census that was published shortly after I became Secretary.
Fairly significant trends. It's a snapshot. It's a picture of where we are and where we might be heading. Here, were five very interesting aspects of that Ag Census:
We have, first and foremost, a responsibility to try to work to make those small-sized farms from an income standpoint become mid-sized farms. Now what is the strategy for doing that? Well, many of those farms are producing fruits and vegetables, nuts, and specialty crops.
So you will see USDA make a major effort to try to encourage Americans, and particularly America's children, to consume more fruits, vegetables, nuts, and specialty crops.
And we have an enormous opportunity this year as we reauthorize the School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Most people don't realize that roughly two-thirds of our budget is food assistance programs. And with the stimulus package we're seeing a rather dramatic increase in the SNAP program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Now you say, "Why was that part of the stimulus package? Why are we putting $20 billion of our resources into that program to try to stimulate the economy?" Because for every $5 that is spent in that program, we activate $9.20 of economic activity--more crops being sold, more crops being transported, more crops being retailed, more crops being consumed.
So you're going to see a major push from USDA to encourage, as we reauthorize the School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, an embracing of fruits and vegetables and specialty crops, nutritious food, consistent with the President's direction, good for those small producers.
You're going to see a very significant effort on our part to improve the safety and security of our food system. Now I'm proud of the work that USDA does. We have thousands of dedicated workers every day in plants and meat packing facilities all across this country making sure that the food that we consume is safe. But we need to continue to work to do a better job with all food products, which means we need to make a commitment to modernizing the food system, focusing on preventing rather than mitigating the consequences of food-borne illness.
And 325,000 Americans every single year now go to the hospital from food-borne illnesses. And that doesn't include the millions who get sick but do not go to the hospital. We can do better, and we have to do better because when we don't it impacts markets. It impacts the capacity of our farmers and ranchers to sell their products.
You're going to see a major effort, starting with the stimulus package and continuing through the implementation of the Farm Bill, to rebuild and revitalize rural communities in this country. The Farm Bill has billions of dollars, a major effort to expand broadband for example, to unserved areas. Why is that important for USDA? Why is that important for farmers and ranchers? Because it creates opportunities for small businesses to prosper in rural communities, giving them access potentially to world-wide markets. It helps to create those off-farm opportunities that help to support those small and mid-sized farm operations.
We're going to have to rebuild the infrastructure, the basic infrastructure of rural America, starting with wastewater treatment facilities and working in concert with the Department of Transportation and Department of Commerce to rebuild roads and rail systems so we're able to transport crops, products, more quickly and less expensively. So you'll see a major effort in Rural Development.
You'll see the obvious effort on USDA's part to continue the momentum of building and sustaining an energy industry within USDA and within farming and ranching. That means biofuels, it means renewable energy, it means windmills, it means solar panels, and it means all of that and more.
Now as Joe indicated, the ethanol industry is stressed today. And so USDA has a responsibility of keeping an eye on that industry and providing assistance and help, particularly to struggling processing facilities, so that we maintain the infrastructure that can then take advantage of the second and third generation biofuels that are being developed right now with the help of USDA and the Department of Energy.
And massive amounts of money are going into research and development to figure out how to produce biofuels, not just in the Midwest but all across the country, using a variety of feedstocks.
And taking some of the pressure off this public discussion -- whether it's based in fact or not, it's not really important; it is out there -- and that is: are we doing food or are we doing fuel? My view is that we have the capacity and the ability to do both and need to do both. If we're to meet the President's instruction that he wants more energy production out of our farm fields and ranches, and if we are going to turn this economy around and become less reliant on fossil fuels, we've got to create more biofuel.
And you'll see efforts to accelerate the Farm Bill programs designed to identify new feedstocks, designed to provide assistance to farmers who want to raise these new feedstocks, assistance to allow them to harvest them, to transport them and store them. You'll see a commitment to helping bio-refineries be established throughout the country to utilize these new feedstocks, and you'll see us working with the Department of Energy to coordinate our efforts.
We've already provided some assistance and help in terms of their process on loan guarantees that might be helpful to get this effort accelerated. You'll see a continued effort and an aggressive effort at promoting our conservation stewardship programs. Why? Because it's good for the environment; it's good to preserve the soil; it's good to protect the water. But it's also another resource opportunity. And I've asked the staff to accelerate the rulemaking process, in terms of where the priorities were when I came into office, to lift the Conservation Stewardship Program rulemaking so that we can get those programs into effect as quickly as possible.
Now all of those strategies are really designed to help and assist specifically those small-income and mid-income farms.
For the larger production facilities, we need them: 125,000 farms produce 75 percent of the food that we consume. It's obvious they have a very important role and need to be supported. That means we need to continue to invest in science, in research and development because there's going to continue to be pressure and stress on those operations to continue to produce. Why? Because our population is growing.
But the world's population is growing. We have 6 billion people today, and it won't be long before we have 7 billion, and then we'll have 8 billion, and we'll have 9 billion. And the population continues to grow, but the amount of land available to produce crops isn't going to grow.
So we have to figure out how to do more with what we have. And that means an investment by USDA in concert with the private sector and land grant universities in figuring out how can we be more productive; how can we use less natural resources to produce these crops.
Bear in mind that we have serious issues in the western part of the country today with water. And we have issues with water quality in other parts of the country. And this is just the beginning of issues relating to water globally.
So we have an important role to play in USDA to make sure we're as productive as we can be.
We also have an important role to expand and continue to work hard on exporting our crops. The reality is that, while the country as a whole has a trade deficit, as Joe pointed out in the ag area we have a trade surplus. And so we need to continue to work hard, in the 70 countries that we're represented across the globe, in encouraging greater exporting of American products.
Now that requires us to be aggressive. It requires us to be listening to our customers worldwide and adapting our practices and our procedures to meet the demands of customers around the world, and to begin the process and continue the process of breaking down whatever barriers exist today to our capacity to export. We'll be aggressive in that area as well.
And we will embrace a new opportunity for both our farm side and our forest side. As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the National Forest Service, and works in concert with state forests and private forests. There is a tremendous opportunity for us if we embrace it. And that is to look at climate change not as a problem but as another solution, another opportunity for those to profit by using our land in ways that reduce our carbon footprint, not just on the land and not just in our farming operation but for the country generally.
As the Congress begins a discussion, a debate, about energy policy and climate change, agriculture has to be there, has to be engaged. Just as it has to be engaged in trade discussions and negotiations when we talk about labor standards and environmental standards, ag has to be at the table to protect its interests. We've got to be at the table, we've got to be engaged in this conversation, we have to be in front of this conversation. We have to lead this conversation because we have a tremendous opportunity here, a tremendous opportunity. If we seize it. ...
And we have a trillion dollar deficit this year. It's actually a trillion and a half. Much of it was inherited. We're likely to have something akin to that in the following year. We cannot saddle the next generation, we can't saddle these young people who are here today with that bill.
So we have to begin the process of having to make tough, hard decisions about where our priorities are. And if you think about budgets, as the President discloses his budget today, if you think about budgets it's really about a philosophy. It's about a framework. But ultimately it's about the question: If you had a dollar to spend, where would you spend it? It is about choices.
And the reality is that agriculture, the USDA's part of the budget, has to also be involved in making those tough choices and looking very carefully at where we spend our resources. Is it better to put a dollar into food assistance programs because of the stimulus effect, because of the capacity to encourage more fruits and vegetable consumption and increase markets that way? Is it better to put a dollar in export promotion? Is it better to put a dollar in research to increase productivity? Is it better to put a dollar in conservation stewardship? Is it better to put a dollar in climate change and paying folks for absorbing carbon? Or is it better to put a dollar into a support structure and a safety net?
Those are the choices that we collectively have to make. And they aren't easy. They aren't easy, but we have to make them because we can't get ourselves out of one financial mess only to put ourselves in another financial mess.
And so as this budget is rolled out, understand that the choices we've talked about here and the directions we've talked about -- the President's instructions, the current events, the financial challenges and the trendsall, in my view, suggest a rather aggressive effort on the part of USDA to provide diverse opportunities for farmers and ranchers to succeed. ...
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