Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack focused on rural revitalization in his two and a half hours before the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, as the lone witness at the first hearing of the 2012 Farm Bill process.
In his testimony and a press conference that followed, Vilsack focused his comments on the livelihood of rural America in general, a departure for many Members and farm constituents who think of farm safety net programs as the meat of farm bill discussions.
Vilsack said that agriculture’s immense productivity – one farmer now feeds 155 people, versus 19 in 1940 – does not hew with department statistics showing only 11 percent of family farm household income comes from operation of the farm.
He also expressed concern about the aging of farm operators, the general loss of population in a majority of rural counties and a series of disturbing statistics showing rural dwellers face lower per capita income, higher rates of job loss and more difficulty finding and maintaining good jobs than their urban counterparts.
“This suggests the need for a very strong safety net, but it also suggests that there’s another aspect to the safety net, and that is the significance and importance of jobs,” Vilsack said.
He said that the 2008 Farm Bill and the Recovery Act stimulus package, enacted to help reverse the economic downturn of the existing recession, put into place a framework to create a new rural economy by incentivizing the expansion of broadband and new energy production. He described a wealth of other possibilities including the development of local production and consumption linkages, opportunities to use conservation programs for recreation development and increased income from “ecosystems markets” like carbon sequestration.
To develop these opportunities, Vilsack encouraged a focus on coordination between parts of the federal government, federal and local governments and individual rural communities.
Asked directly at the press conference about whether he would like a farm safety net bill or a rural development bill, Vilsack noted Congress would ultimately write the legislation. However, he went on to describe focusing only on safety net programs as “not in the best interest” of farmers or the country, and urged a broad approach, saying there’s talk about farm safety net programs “all the time”.
In the near-term, Wednesday’s hearing also served to fill in a number of logistical blanks. Vilsack touched on the implementation process for the 2008 Farm Bill, which is still very much underway, saying “the volume, complexity, and public policy impact of these provisions are great,” but providing little new information.
Notably, Vilsack said he is committed to working with Congress on issues relating to the renegotiation of the Standard Reinsurance Agreement (SRA) between USDA and crop insurance providers, particularly with respect to maintaining the budget baseline for the 2012 Farm Bill. He also indicated USDA is not planning to undertake a comprehensive farm bill proposal, which was done during the 2007 debate, but will be offering input into the process informally.
The House Committee has set four field hearings in the coming weeks, for April 30 in Des Moines, Iowa; May 1 in Nampa, Idaho; May 3 in Fresno, Calif.; and May 4 in Cheyenne, Wyo.
Complete scheduling information and a full copy of Vilsack’s written testimony are accessible at http://agriculture.house.gov/.