Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack lashed out at Congress today, imploring elected officials to pass a budget and five-year farm bill that provides a strong safety net for U.S. farmers.
Appearing at the 2013 Commodity Classic in Kissimmee, Fla., he thanked farmers for enormous productive growth over the past several decades, noting that the U.S. produced the fifth biggest corn crop last year despite a drought of historic levels.
But his main message was one he hoped farmers themselves would tell elected officials back in Washington.
"Stand up and say to your leaders in Washington, forget about the party, forget about the people who fund your campaigns – for that matter, forget about the next campaign," he said. "Do your job, end the sequester, get a budget passed, and get a good solid five year farm bill. And if you do, we will deliver what we always deliver -- the greatest agricultural production known to mankind. We will do our job. Just do yours."
Vilsack ticked off a wish list for the next farm bill:
A strong safety net with continued commitment to crop insurance. "That protection made a difference during the drought," he said. "We've paid out nearly $14.7 billion this year, and it's likely to go up to between $15 and $17 billion. But it's the first year in a long time that they will pay out more than they took in. As a whole it's been a profitable business."
A commitment to exports. "We've had four of the best export years in the history of this country and this year will likely be a record," he said. "We've seen barriers coming down and exports are up the first three months of this fiscal year, but we need programs approved in the farm bill that allow us to continue to promote trade. Every $1 billion in ag trade supports 78 (American) jobs."
A commitment to conservation. Vilsack wants to see a farm bill that streamlines and simplifies conservation programs that focus on the needs of producers, with better flexibility.
He also wants a farm bill that recognizes the importance of local or regional food, as well as different methods of production. "We want to create better coexistence between commodity and organic production," he said. "We need to work on ways we can do a better job of stewardship and best practices so folks can get along in communities together."
Vilsack said even before sequester, USDA had cut budgets by nearly $1 billion. "We have reduced our workforce by 8%, which means someone is doing double duty," he said. "This is a (USDA) workforce that, with the sequester, will have an operating budget that is less than it was in 2009, and hasn't had any real increase in budget for the last three years.
"This workforce is dedicated to providing service to you, but with the sequester, every line item has to be cut by a certain percentage – it's not a situation where we can take some money from one area and move it to another."
Vilsack said the time focusing on sequester and budget cuts takes away from USDA's 2013 priorities – including how to help farmers mitigate impacts from climate change, improving ag research, promoting the benefits of diversification and multi-cropping, and unlocking new industries and products based on biomass production.
Yet, those priorities were taking a backseat to budget woes and sequester.
"This is crazy," he said. "This shouldn't happen in a functioning democracy. People should recognize we have fiscal issues and we have to address them. We have to do that in a way that requires sacrifice.
"If everybody just gave a little, we can get this done, but unfortunately in Washington, nobody's listening to the reasonable people out in the countryside who are scratching their heads and saying, why can't they just get along?"