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Vilsack's Speech to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives

by: Jill Richardson

Wed Feb 25, 2009 at 13:00:00 PM PST

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On month after being sworn in as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack addressed the
Federation of Southern Cooperatives - a group whose slogan is "Fighting To Save Black-Owned Land Since 1967 With Cooperatives".

This is symbolic, as Vilsack pledged to end the USDA's history of discrimination against black farmers. Find out what he said below.

Jill Richardson :: Vilsack's Speech to the Federation of Southern Cooperatives
After a long list of thank-yous, Vilsack lauded the FSC for discussing sustainable agriculture, value added production, carbon credits, and WIC. I'm with Vilsack for loving the idea of farmers engaging in value added activities (i.e. making jam out of fruit they grow, or curing the meat of the animals they raised) because it allows them to capture some extra revenue instead of giving it away to a middleman - but as you know I'm not a big fan of biofuels, which was Vilsack's example of a value added activity. I appreciate that a relatively large percent of biofuels come from small, farmer owned operations, and I recognize that these farmers are hurting just as much as the rest of us in this economy, but when it comes down to it, biofuels just aren't "green."

On WIC, though, Vilsack nailed it:

The one thing I would like to talk about is the food assistance programs in that stimulus package. Congress had the foresight to put close to twenty billion dollars in to food assistance. And here's what you all need to know. For every 5 dollars that you invest in food assistance you generate 9 dollars and 20 cents of economic activity. You generate jobs, you generate income for folks. And so that is as much a stimulus, as much a job creator as any road project or and broadband project or anything else. So it is very important for you to have focused on WIC.

After that, Vilsack launched into a discussion of agricultural trends. He brings up the 2007 ag census and calls out "five or six major trends."

  1. Growth in the number of small farms. 108,000 new small farms with sales of less than $1000.

    These are very, very, very small operations. But that is a significant start for people in agriculture and a significant connection to the land - a hundred and eight thousand.

  2. Growth in the number of the largest farms. 41,000 more farms making over $500k in sales per year.

  3. Less farms in the middle. 80,000 less farms making between $10k and $500k in sales.

    Some of them migrated to larger farms. But the reality is that - and you all live with it - a lot of those farms are no longer in business.

  4. Farmers working off the farm - Out of 2.2 million farmers and ranchers, 900,000 have to work off the farm at least 200 days per year.

  5. Aging farmers - the average age of farmers increased from 55 in 2002 to 57 in 2007.

Vilsack said that the President sees these trends and wants to have a rural renaissance across the country. To Vilsack, this means:

  1. Help the small farms turn into mid-income farms.
  2. Help the mid-sized farms stay in business.
  3. "Continue to recognize the important role that larger production agriculture plays." (Less than 5% of farms produce 75% of our food)

About his strategy to do this, he says:

it is going to be very important for us in this country to make a major push to focus on nutrition - fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts - things that are good for you. And it can start this year with the reauthorization of the school lunch, school breakfast programs, we can make a major statement about the importance of nutrition. If we're serious about health care, if we're concerned about the rise in health care costs in this country, the notion that we're spending 20% of every dollar in America on health care, we can't continue to do that and be competitive. It we're serious about that, then we have got to focus on nutrition - and we've got to start with this young generation. And in doing so we can create real opportunities locally to produce those fresh vegetables and that that fruit and develop ways in which that product can get into schools and institutions in the local area.

Hooray! Vilsack's in favor of farm-to-school programs! Can he help get funding from Congress for the farm to school program that was authorized but not funded 5 years ago?

Vilsack goes on to call for regional distribution systems:

Now you've got farmer's markets, which are great, but we have to also still continue with rural development to figure out how we can develop regional distribution systems so that we really encourage the growth and development of this.

But if we inject a nutrition ethic in this country and a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables we can expand dramatically those small operations that are currently producing those products and create new markets for them. And if we can get them engaged and involved in WIC and SNAP and in the school breakfast and the school lunch program, we can dramatically increase this market. We should do that.

Hell yeah! You tell 'em, Vilsack!

He also spoke about food safety, and framed it in terms of the farmers staying in business (he was in Georgia so I'm sure the peanut farmers heard him very clearly). Without confidence in the safety of the food supply, sales go down:

If you think about it, 325,000 Americans every year are hospitalized for a food borne illness. And millions get sick but don't go to the hospital. We can't continue to have a system that allows that to happen. And the President was quite clear when he asked me to do this job. He wants a focus on nutrition and food safety.

But then he addressed what ensuring food safety actually means in the government right now:

And so we have to work hard with our counterparts in the federal government - the 14 other agencies that are involved in food safety - to modernize our system so that it is the top, the best. Figure out how to coordinate the systems so that the right hand always knows what the left hand is doing. If the FDA finds out something about peanut butter then we at USDA need to know about it, so we don't provide it to schools, which happened in this case and thankfully nobody got hurt.

Uh, yeah. So how 'bout that one consolidated food safety agency? Fortunately, Vilsack says he's for it.

Ok so then he goes off about biofuels and the farm bill for a bit - you already know how I feel about that - but then he gets to a topic I like: conservation.

And we're also focused on Conservation stewardship part of the Farm Bill. It is also clear that this is a great income opportunity for us to do the right thing with our land to protect our environment but to pay and compensate farmers accordingly for the use of their land for societal benefit - that is a strategy.

Yup. Great. But it only works if Congress actually funds it. I'm glad to know that Vilsacks' deputy Kathleen Merrigan is acutely aware of that - AND she has friends in the Senate.

The next part of the talk is another place where Vilsack and I differ. He wants more agricultural exports. I agree the the trade deficit is something that needs to be fixed - but I think we do it by importing less crap from China, not by sending more corn and soy to the rest of the world.

And then (I'm starting to feel like this was a long speech), he gets into climate change and carbon sequestration by farmers:

And USDA has to be at the table when we begin a very important conversation this year
- for this country. Climate change is real. You all know it. Those of you who work the land, see it. You understand it. You appreciate it. The reality is there's an income opportunity here for agriculture but only if agriculture is at the table. Only as we develop a carbon system - a cap and trade system - as we begin to price carbon - only if we recognize that ag has to be at the table that ag has an important role to play in this effort to turn our country into a less of a user of carbon - a contributor to reducing greenhouse gasses - only when we recognize that will ag be at the table and obtain what is rightfully their portion of this opportunity.

Last - he got to the main subject he was there to address in the first place. Civil rights.

I thought about this when I woke up this morning at about 4:30 AM to prepare to fly down here. I thought to myself what if somehow Abe Lincoln could come back for just a few minutes... And then he might wander down to the mall and he might see this rather large building - the United States Department of Agriculture. And he might wonder himself "I wonder how they're doing in there? I wonder if they're supporting farmers. I wonder if the People's Department is truly the People's Department?" And then he'd walk in and maybe he'd stop someone in the civil rights area and he'd sort of ask. "How are we doing?" And he'd be told, "Mr. President, some folks refer to USDA as the last plantation." And he'd say, "What do you mean by that?" "Well it's go a pretty poor history when it comes to taking care of folks of color. It's discriminated against them in programming and it's made it somewhat more difficult for some of color to be hired and promoted. It's not a very good history, Mr. President."

With that in mind, Vilsack pledged to correct the civil rights problem. He proposes reorganizing the USDA so that the Assistant Secretary of Administration (the person who deals with human resources for the USDA) is equal in rank with Under Secretaries. Once the Assistant Secretary of Administration is in place, he wants to charge that person with cleaning up the internal civil rights mess.

And I think we need to make sure we have someone in that position who understands these issues, who understands the history, and who understands the department. And I'm here today to tell you we will be hiring such a person that has the qualification that I am placing on that particular job. Someone who understands this is an important issue that has to be addressed and someone who is knowledgeable enough to be able to address it from day one.

So there's the content of Vilsack's speech. Oh - and about that garden at the USDA?

And we're going to take that and make an organic vegetable garden. And we're going to take those vegetables and we're going to give it to the local food bank, and we're going to have it tended by USDA employees on a volunteer basis and also people with disabilities.

Nice one, Vilsack. Keep up the (mostly) good work.

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I think that's a pretty damn impressive speech. (4.00 / 3)
Sounds like the Obama administration and Vilsack are largely in tune with us.  They won't go a far as I (and perhaps you) would like (after all, reform doesn't come overnight).  But it sounds like the big 'ol (agricultural) ship of state is starting to make a long slow turnabout.  It will be exciting to see what happens over the next 8 years and where the USDA is, and is heading, at the end of that period.  

Yeah, 8 years - I'm sounding way too optimistic.  But after last night's speech, the way Republicans have been reacting, Jindal's poor excuse of a rebuttal:  hell, the GOP is just digging its grave deeper and deeper. I'm ever more confidently expecting that after the '10 and '12 elections, the GOP will become essentially extinct as a national party, will be nothing more than a very small, racist, and irrelevant southern party.  Unless they figure out how to reinvent themselves.  And I see no evidence of that happening.

as many have said (4.00 / 2)
the Republicans have become a regional party. Looks like their Southern strategy worked a little too well for their own good.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

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