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Published January 18, 2013, 12:38 PM

Vilsack urges support for Hagel

Says newly nominated defense secretary will support renewable fuels.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Jan. 14 urged members of the American Farm Bureau Federation to support former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., for defense secretary, saying Hagel would support military use of renewable fuels.

President Barack Obama has nominated Hagel to be defense secretary, but the nomination has run into opposition from conservative leaders who question some of Hagel’s positions on the Middle East.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., has said that even though Hagel had a distinguished military career and has been a friend for years, the two Nebraska senators “have very different opinions on many very important issues,” and that Hagel “has an obligation to elaborate on his past statements and fully explain his positions during what I expect to be a thorough and fair confirmation hearing.”

But in a speech Jan. 14, Vilsack gave Hagel his full support.

“Let me tell you why I want Chuck Hagel,” Vilsack said. “He is from Nebraska, he understands the biobased economy. He would be a secretary of Defense who could champion the biobased economy.”

Vilsack also urged farmers to take an interest in other Cabinet nominations.

The Treasury Department, Vilsack noted, has a new market tax credit program that could be important for rural America and said Treasury nominee White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew should be asked about it.

Vilsack also urged farmers to get involved in the confirmations of new nominees for Commerce secretary and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and in the administration’s expected push to reform immigration laws.

The confirmation process, immigration and other issues, Vilsack said, can help rural America build “strategic alliances” with people who can push Congress to pass a farm bill.

“Whether we like it or not, we have to acknowledge that the political clout rural America once had we don’t have today,” he said. “Rural communities, organizations and leaders must reach new audiences to strengthen the understanding of the agricultural sector.

“I’m going to do all I can this year to work with Congress and secure the sort of comprehensive, long-term food, farm and jobs bill that will continue growing the rural economy,” he said. “But I need the help of those across rural America to reach out, to expand partnerships and to tell the story of the modern and innovative rural America that provides so much to our nation.”

Immigration reform

Vilsack suggested that farmers engage evangelicals and other Hispanic-serving organizations in the fight for the immigration reform bill. He also said that immigration reform has to be comprehensive, noting that while it would be “nice” to think that agriculture’s immigration issues could be solved separately, that idea is impractical.

Vilsack called such reaching out “constructive engagement,” and cited as an example his own relationship with outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Although rural leaders and Republicans have criticized Jackson, Vilsack noted that she proved willing to listen to farmers.

(Jackson did not impose spilled milk and dust regulations that many farmers feared.)

Vilsack also noted that after he had told U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donahue that his organization should pay more attention to agriculture, the chamber held a conference on agricultural innovation and now wants USDA’s help in organizing a conference on water.

Food stamps

Rather than raise issues about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, Vilsack said farm leaders should “find a way to connect” with food stamp beneficiaries and their representatives.

The secretary also repeated a statement he made in December that rural leaders should rethink their opposition to the agreement that United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States reached on a national program regulating cage sizes for egg-laying hens. The agreement called for HSUS to end its plans to mount initiatives in states to impose the cage size regulations, which the United Egg Producers wanted to avoid, he said.

Other agriculture groups opposed the agreement, however, and it has gone nowhere in Congress.

Vilsack told the Farm Bureau he realized most of them were not fans of the Humane Society, but that HSUS and the egg producers had reached “common ground” and that the proposal was “reasonable.”

He added, “Isn’t that what we are asking Congress to do?”

Asked at the news conference how agriculture could work with a group whose goal is to end animal agriculture, Vilsack said farmers should use the situation as a way to educate animal rights activists about agriculture.