Will Secretary Vilsack Be an Ally in Promoting Beginning Farmer Programs?

By Taylor Reid

I don’t do a lot of original columns on this blog, because there always seems to be so much information just to put out there, but today I’m going to break with my usual habit of listing the latest news, job postings and events – just for the day – to ask a question I think is important, and have been thinking about a lot.

When It comes to support for beginning farmers, will we find an ally in USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack? Only time will tell, but this little piece of history sure suggests that he may be willing to stand up for beginning farmer programs in the next Farm Bill and elsewhere. If he is not, let this interesting bit of history show that he has turned his back on something he has spoken passionately and eloquently about. And though he wouldn’t be the first politician to do so, after reading this, you may find some hope that this is something he cares enough about to, perhaps unlike other recent decisions, avoid leaving his backbone behind when he comes to work on it.

On June 30th, 2010 United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was called to testify as the lead witness at a U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry hearing. The purpose of the hearing was to review progress on implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill’s commodity, crop insurance, and disaster assistance programs. After being introduced by Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, Vilsack did something rather surprising and unorthodox. He completely set aside his twelve-page written testimony on issues the hearing was convened to consider, and instead began talking about his vision for the 2012 Farm Bill. Focusing on the need to rebuild rural communities and improve their economies, he suggested the Committee consider “just one idea”:

“Why not set as a goal for the 2012 Farm Bill the ability to add at least 100,000 additional farmers in the area of the small farming and commercial operations. Why not establish local advisory councils in communities across the country to identify, recruit, encourage, and assist young people to consider a life of farming. Why not develop a system similar to case management and human services that would enable those young people to have assistance to work themselves through the many programs that are created in the Farm Bill. Why not create a vehicle where new farmers can get help with business planning, with marketing, and the other ingredients of successful entrepreneurship. Why not expand our efforts to encourage transitions from those seeking to retire to those seeking to start the farming business. Why not place the nation’s attention on the need for young farmers on the same plane as police officers and teachers. They are equally important to the future of this country. The sad reality is that the farming community is aging… I think it’s important as you all begin your discussions and deliberations of a Farm Bill, that we focus an aggressive effort on helping beginning farmers begin…[1]”

Let us hope that these were not just hollow words, and let us be sure to hold him to account.

[1] Secretary Vilsack’s prepared remarks, from which he did not read a single word, are available at http://216.40.253.202/~usscanf/index.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_download&gid=193. A video of the hearing, including the speech I quoted above is available at: http://www.senate.gov/fplayers/CommPlayer/commFlashPlayer.cfm?fn=ag063010&st=1050 (accessed 1/17/11).

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