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Published March 12, 2012, 11:10 AM

Ag secretary turns up the heat

NASHVILLE — In a wide-ranging speech to the Commodity Classic in Nashville on March 2 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack intensified the pressure on Congress to pass a farm bill this year and also brought up a number of new ideas, including changing tax law to encourage land sales to beginning farmers and ranchers.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

NASHVILLE — In a wide-ranging speech to the Commodity Classic in Nashville on March 2 Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack intensified the pressure on Congress to pass a farm bill this year and also brought up a number of new ideas, including changing tax law to encourage land sales to beginning farmers and ranchers.

Vilsack urged the corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum farmers who attend the Commodity Classic to push Congress to pass a bill by telling the story of Michael Alexander, a Navy veteran from Texas who lost his legs in the military, but went into pepper farming near his wife’s family in Delaware because he had grown up with people “who always dreamed of farming for a rewarding, honest living.”

Vilsack said Alexander emailed him that “the problem with farming is that it has worse odds than a crap table,” but that when he lost peppers in a storm, the Farm Service Agency was there to help him save his farm.

“It’s clear that folks like Michael need assurance there will be a safety net,” Vilsack said, adding that if members of Congress say it’s too hard to pass a farm bill this year, then farmers should not accept that answer because Congress managed to pass the Homestead Act, establish the land grant colleges and the transcontinental railroad system during the Civil War.

“When any member of Congress says to me we are not able to get this done today, I say, ‘This is not what America does,” he said. “We don’t make excuses. We get things done. And we expect our leaders to do that.”

Vilsack said farm groups should “send a consistent message that we expect action this year. We need to understand what the rules will be.”

The secretary said he thinks that the chairmen and ranking members of the agriculture committees are “committed” to passing a farm bill this year, but doesn’t know whether other members understand the importance of completing the legislation on a timely basis.

Vilsack repeated his previous statements on the Obama administration’s farm bill principles: that a safety net should start with a “strong, stable crop insurance system,” continue programs to sell American products overseas and continue commitments to agricultural research and increase a commitment to beginning farmers and ranchers.

Importance of agricultural research

“The one area (in which) we can’t reduce our budget — and in fact should increase our budget — is basic research,” Vilsack said. Noting at a press conference that Congress manages to find money for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Vilsack said it is just as important to find money for agricultural research because it’s just as important to make sure people will have enough to eat in the future.

“My concern is that if we don’t invest in research, we will see a decline in productivity,” the secretary said.

After a reporter noted that universities are cutting back on extension programs, Vilsack said that public research is important because “when the private sector invests in research, it is theirs. They will share it with you for a price. When it is in the public domain people have access to it.”

His comment about the private sector sharing its research for a price prompted one reporter to laugh, and Vilsack to respond with “I share your skepticism.”

Vilsack noted that farmers are concerned about the estate tax, but said Congress should directly address the questions related to land availability and farm programs for beginning farmers because the age of the average farmer continues to get higher. The government has programs to increase the number of teachers, police and scientists, Vilsack noted, but said the country also “needs a new generation of farmers.”

The secretary said that he and his wife own a farm in Iowa that has increased nine times in value, but that if they were to sell it to a young farmer “there would be a substantial amount of tax.” He also joked that his sons, who are not farming, “are rooting for mom and dad to leave this earth. I want them to root for me to live.”

Vilsack said he is not certain how tax policy should be changed to encourage land transfers to a new generation of farmers, but that he believes the farm bill should be used to encourage discussion. He said that senators’ “ears perked up” when he mentioned the issue, and urged journalists to write about it.

If the only thing that the farm bill accomplishes is “how to deal with direct payments, we will have missed a tremendous opportunity,” he said, adding that the issue of beginning farmers and ranchers’ access to credit should also be addressed.

Biofuels, ports and more

In his speech and at a news conference, Vilsack also said:

• The Obama administration remains committed to biofuels “that you helped create.” Without biofuels, gasoline would be a dollar higher per gallon, he said, urging the attendees to tell Congress to allow the government to invest in renewable fuels and invest in jobs in the United States “rather than send sons and daughters to distant places.”

• The farm bill should make conservation programs more efficient by making them more flexible so that he can continue to “tell skeptics that soil erosion is declining and fewer pesticides are getting into the water. “

• The administration’s budget contains money to build the new hazardous disease research center in Kansas to replace the one on Plum Island off Long Island, N.Y., despite the criticism of that proposal. With repairs, Plum Island may be useable for a while, but not indefinitely, Vilsack said, adding that he has had conversations with Kansas Republican Gov. Sam Brownback about Brownback’s idea of using bonds to finance construction of the facility. But he noted that decisions on the financing of the facility are up to the Homeland Security agency.

• The United States needs to upgrade its ports, locks and dams, and airports to remain competitive, he said, noting that President Barack Obama “has an appetite” for those projects. The country has had an advantage due to previous infrastructure investments, he said, but noted that other countries have caught up. An investment in infrastructure, he said, “signals confidence in the future.”

• The crop insurance program would still be strong if its budget were reduced, because crop insurance companies should not need underwriting gains of more than 12 percent, crop insurance agents are being paid $900 to $1,000 in commission per policy and the highest levels of premium subsidization could be reduced.

• USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will improve data collection through a recently announced reorganization that involves cuts in staff, but the agency is working with state agriculture departments to deal with concerns about their relationships.

• USDA has told the Office of Management and Budget that it should agree to an increase in the biodiesel standard.

• He will continue to try to help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor Department understand “the real-life circumstances” of farmers and ranchers.

• Immigration is another issue that Congress should address because “sadly there are situations where hard work to produce a crop goes for naught” because there is no one to harvest, pack or ship a crop. “Immigration is a tough issue,” he added. “There are some who like to use it to divide us.”

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