Commentary: Vilsack: Congress must act on five-year farm bill in '13
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks during the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting in Nashville, as AFBF Executive Vice President Julie Anna Potts listens.
(Editor's note: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed the American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Meeting in Nashville last week, and described why Congress must do in 2013 something it couldn't do in 2012: pass a new five-year farm bill. Here are excerpts from his speech.)
I don't know about you folks, but I was glad to see 2012 come and go. It was a tough year for all of us. Of course, it starts with the drought.
Two things I take away, however, from the drought of 2012 as it extends into 2013, and that is the extraordinary resilience of our producers. I think it's amazing that despite the worst drought we've had since the 1930s, we still had one of the top 10 corn crops in the history of the country. It speaks to the willingness of our producers to embrace technology and techniques that make them the most productive and most efficient in the world.
Another takeaway is the important role that safety nets play in helping farmers and producers through difficult times. 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.
We potentially could have had such help if we'd been able to get a food, farm and jobs bill through the Congress.
I think we were all disappointed. We all recognized that there was an opportunity for true reform.
We were disappointed in the fact that there was, in fact, no disaster assistance either in the form of a food, farm and jobs bill passed through Congress or in the extension that was ultimately approved: no help for livestock producers; no help for dairy producers.
We were disappointed that you all were not given the certainty of what a five-year program would do, and the confusion that we now are confronting.
We are committed, and I know the Farm Bureau is committed, to making sure that 2013 is not a repeat of 2012. We need a five-year bill and we need it now.
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 insurance program, a safety net that is defensible and understandable, and one that provides the help and assistance not just to crop producers but also livestock and dairy producers.
Sometimes it's difficult, frankly, to defend to our urban and suburban friends the Direct Payment system. That's why it's going to be important to work with Congress to reform that system but still provide a strong and viable safety net.
This new five-year bill must continue our commitment to provide credit, and particularly to those beginning farmers and ranchers. We need to adjust and amend our credit programs to reflect the reality of higher land values and higher costs.
We need strong but streamlined conservation programs. We don't need as many conservation programs, but we surely need within those conservation programs enough flexibility to be able to tailor it to a specific watershed or a specific operation.
A five-year bill must continue our commitment to trade. It must empower us to work to build a strong export opportunity and to reduce the sanitary and bio-sanitary barriers that often are created as impediments to American exports. I'm proud to say that in the last four years we've had the strongest four years of agricultural exports in the history of the country. And I'm also proud to say that we're projecting record export opportunities this year as well.
This five-year bill must also express strong support for research. The extraordinary story of American agriculture is directly linked and related to the capacity of America to invest in agricultural production. You deal with it every single day: embracing new technologies, new techniques, new machinery. And as a result, you become the most productive and most efficient farmers in the world. It's going to be important for us to continue that story of innovation. But to do it, we need a commitment to research.
A five-year bill should also continue to support and appreciate our specialty crop producers. These specialty crop producers are providing new opportunities for entrepreneurship in rural America, those local and regional food systems that are dotting the landscape that complement production agriculture. We want to expand market opportunities both here and abroad.
A new five-year bill must embrace not just renewable fuel, but the unlimited potential of the bio-based economy. I've seen the ability to use corncobs and switchgrass and algae and a wide variety of things that are grown and raised or could be produced in rural areas, converted into plastics, into chemicals, into fabrics, into fibers, into fuel, into energy. It is an unlimited future. But we require support and assistance and help and a commitment through a five-year bill.
And finally, a five-year bill must also reflect the proper context for our nutrition assistance programs. They are part of an important safety net for struggling families. They're also an important safety net for producers. After all, producers get somewhere between 15 cents and 16 cents of every food dollar that's spent in a grocery store and a restaurant. And to the extent that families are empowered during struggling times to be able to buy adequate groceries for their family, at the end of the day that also helps American producers.
The reality is in this time and at this age we have got to understand and appreciate the importance of keeping these programs together. We're going to need all of the support we can muster to get a five-year bill through.
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