By Matt Reese
As has been the tradition, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture addressed attendees of the Commodity Classic, this time on a virtual platform.
Newly confirmed in the role, Tom Vilsack outlined some of the top priorities for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the coming months and years. First on the list was the ongoing response to COVID-19.
“As difficult as it has been for those who work at USDA, it has been incredibly difficult for those we serve at USDA. I understand and appreciate that every farmer, every rancher every producer in the country has gone through a very difficult time,” Vilsack said. “With previous COVID packages, some but not all of those in the supply chain have been helped and assisted to get through this crisis. First and foremost we wanted to do an evaluation at USDA to determine precisely what the need is out there. How many groups within the supply chain need help and assistance? Who has received assistance? Who has received some assistance but not enough? Who has received no assistance at all?”
In determining the strategy moving forward, USDA is also watching the progress of the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan. The bill narrowly passed the Senate on March 6 and was signed by President Biden on March 11.
“We are in the process of completing that analysis and I anticipate within the next several weeks we are going to be in a position to let folks know what our thoughts are as we go forward with these COVID relief packages,” Vilsack said. “We know that its important and we know that people are waiting.”
In his comments, Vilsack referred to information recently released by the USDA Economic Research Service showing that a staggering 89.6% of U.S. farms do not make the majority of their household income from the agricultural operation.
“Nearly 90% of farmers require off-farm income in order to maintain and keep the farm. That is a very difficult statistic for a Secretary of Agriculture to repeat to a group of producers,” Vilsack said. “That suggests we need to do a lot better job.”
For the next four years, Vilsack said that means a focus on more markets, better markets, new markets and fair markets.
“I learned a lot of lessons in the last four years working for the dairy industry in the Export Council. We need to continue to focus on providing greater presence for U.S. products in markets. That means more people on the ground in those markets, more partnerships with institutions and universities to have a better understanding of what each market requires and more promotions to make sure the U.S. brand is well known and well received in markets. We are going to focus our attention and resources at USDA on providing assistance to allow for greater presence in key markets,” he said. “More markets also means the enforcement of trade agreements in a way in which those trade agreements were negotiated. I’m speaking specifically of the USMCA. I recently had the opportunity to have conversations with the Minister of Agriculture in Canada and I brought up the issues with wheat and the need for Canada to be more open to the various varieties of wheat grown in the US. I also talked with her on dairy issues. Then I had the opportunity to visit with the Secretary of Agriculture from Mexico and I expressed the concern about the Mexican attitude about genetically engineered crops and the need of being able to get those crops into that market without barriers or interference. I received assurances from a feed perspective that that will be the case and there will be continued access to that incredible market and a chance to grow that market.”
Trade agreements with the United Kingdom and the European Union are potentially on the horizon and Phase 1 with China is being closely monitored.
“You can’t have a conversation about trade without talking about China and Phase 1. China needs a lot of what the U.S. can provide. We have seen recent purchases from China reflect their need and our ability to provide that need,” Vilsack said. “The reality is our China relationship is complex. It is not simply based on trade. It has multiple layers and on some of those layers we compete and some we cooperate with China on major issues like climate change and cyber terrorism. On any given day because of that complexity, some other aspect of that relationship may have a negative impact on our trade relationship.”
In terms of better markets, Vilsack said the USDA will be working towards more openness and transparency.
“There is a lot of concern about consolidation in agriculture in a variety of areas. We are going to do what we can at USDA to make sure we have adequate price discovery and that we strengthen rules for a more competitive environment to make sure farmers are treated fairly,” Vilsack said. “If there are issues related to unfair activities we are going to be a department that supports farmers, works for farmers and enforces fair trade opportunities. We are going to highlight where markets are working well and make sure people understand what a competitive market looks like.”
More processing for agricultural products will be important moving forward as well.
“We are going to invest, I hope, in more processing facilities. We learned during COVID that our supply chain was easily disrupted,” he said. “We need to make sure our markets are far more resilient. Additional processing facilities will allow us to have more competitive markets.”
In terms of new markets, USDA is looking to the prioritization of climate change and the crucial role that can be played by agriculture, including finding new uses for agricultural waste and the creation of a carbon credit bank designed to benefit farmers.
“Climate is a new market for farmers to profit by sequestering carbon. We need to invest in and support investment in encouraging farmers to continue to embrace practices including cover crops, crop diversity, rotational grazing and other practices we know will have a positive impact on soil health and water quality. By investing in those practices we do right by the environment and we do right by the climate,” Vilsack said. “We have to create programs in a way that benefits farmers. It is the farmers who are sequestering the carbon. We are going to focus on how to best to structure a program that creates a new revenue stream that supports the conservation programs that already exist.”
In terms of fairer markets, Vilsack is directly addressing racial inequity in agriculture.
“I’m talking about addressing the equity issues that have plagued the Department of Agriculture for quite some time. We have dealt with individual acts of discrimination from time to time and we have compensated people for those individual acts, but we have not been able to address the cumulative effects of discrimination over many decades and the fact that it has put some farmers significantly behind their counterparts. We will be spending some time at USDA trying to figure out creative ways to create greater equity in what we do at USDA in providing better opportunities for socially disadvantaged farmers who have struggled,” he said. “This is going to take an opportunity for us to review comprehensively the various programs at USDA in a way that will allow us to identify any barriers or systemic racism that have prevented full participation in our programs. We’re committed to this and we think it is the right thing to do. It will potentially provide an opportunity for us to also expand the numbers of farmers in this country.”
Vilsack also addressed the need for infrastructure improvements, establishing a cooperative relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
“The waiver program that was designed to provide assistance and help for small refineries struggling to meet the RFS requirements made sense. What didn’t make sense was providing those waivers to large-scale oil companies,” Vilsack said. “A return to the day when waivers were sparsely granted will provide greater flexibility and predictability to the renewable fuels industry, which in turn should help support that industry.”