ABOVE: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (with microphone) brought the USDA’s Rural Tour to eastern Ohio, holding a town hall meeting in Zanesville Monday. On his mind? Agriculture, rural broadband and clean energy.
ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Anyone paying attention to the topics discussed and the places the U.S. agriculture secretary has visited in the past two weeks, knows the USDA is concentrating efforts on farming and how important it is to the U.S. economy.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited the southeastern portion of the Buckeye State Aug. 31 as part of the Obama administration’s Rural Tour. The rural community forum, held in Zanesville, Ohio, also drew U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and U.S. Rep. Zack Space.
Vilsack spoke for about 15 minutes on his goals and what the USDA is trying to accomplish and then the floor was opened to the community. He touched on topics not just related to the agriculture sector, but addressed rural living as well, including a rural broadband project.
The clean energy legislation, expected to come up for a Senate vote later this fall, was on the day’s agenda. Vilsack said America has to break its addiction to foreign oil, and added by increasing the amount of clean energy produced in this country, the more opportunities will be born.
The secretary acknowledged many farmers’ fears of rising fertilizer costs as a result of the clean energy bill, also called the cap-and-trade bill, but said the USDA has determined the cost increases will be mitigated by the income opportunities generated for farmers.
He said the clean energy bill is estimated to raise between $10 and $20 billion in additional income for farmers.
Sen. Sherrod Brown didn’t share Vilsack’s enthusiasm for the clean energy bill, saying the bill will have to “blunt any electricity price increases” that would be a result of it and would have to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in Ohio.
“I will vote for the bill, but I want to make sure it’s done right and doesn’t hurt jobs,” Brown said.
Rep. Space said one industry that will be impacted as a result of the clean energy legislation will be the coal industry. He said Ohio’s coal would be used, but only after it is put through a process to “clean it up” or make it less damaging to the environment.
“Bills like this aren’t easy,” Space said. “The problem is we waited so long to deal with this and that makes the problem even bigger.”
Vilsack said farmers with livestock production systems and those implementing new land use measures will receive offsets and could gain extra income. He added other farmers will also be able to gain other offsets even if they do not qualify for livestock or land use programs.
“If we fail to step up to this issue, there will be ramifications far beyond the climate,” he warned.
Vilsack predicted the bill would spur economic development and produce family wage jobs.
And that could be timely, as the secretary also stressed his concern over what he called the boom-and-bust cycle in agriculture.
“We need more stability and predictability,” Vilsack said.
The USDA is looking at programs and trying to determine a system where farmers would be able to survive without the large prices increases and then large price decreases.
The agriculture secretary said a long-term strategy needs to be developed, and pointed to the current crisis in the dairy industry. The USDA has rolled out different programs and plans in recent weeks to help dairy farmers, including a milk pricing increase and letting farmers pay interest only and reducing the principal on some USDA loans or other loans serviced by a government entity.
But Vilsack said there is no clear consensus across the country on how to solve the problem.
“Different areas of the country want different solutions,” Vilsack said, adding that this is an extraordinary time for dairy farmers, pork producers and all farmers in general — because so many are on the brink of disaster.
However, Vilsack was optimistic in what he sees in the future.
“When the world economy improves, so will farm prices. But until then, there are stressful times ahead for farmers,” he said.
One member of the audience, Gwen Mendenhall, of Zanesville, addressed the issue of food safety and how important it is to keep America’s food production in the United States.
Mendenhall told Vilsack she is fearful that if the Humane Society of the United Statesgets its way, food production would shift to foreign soil and the food supply safety would be in jeopardy because foreign producers would not have to follow the same regulations the HSUS wants to force on American farmers.
“Our farmers are our national blessings,” Mendenhall said.
Vilsack said he is confident that American farmers will remain in control of food production. The former Iowa governor said he understands there are a large number of livestock producers already doing the right thing and taking care of their livestock humanely.
Mendenhall was referring to Ohio’s Issue 2, which appears on the November ballot. Issue 2 is a constitutional amendment to create a livestock standards board that will define what standards need to be met in raising livestock.