Two of the top names in agriculture met for a standing room only town hall meeting during the recent annual convention of the American Farm Bureau. Farm Bureau President Stallman moderated while U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack addressed current topics and fielded audience questions.
Vilsack acknowledged the work that Farm Bureau has done with programs including the Farmer/Rancher Alliance, the Farmland movie, farm safety and and youth educational programs. “The My American Farm program is geared toward young children (K through 5th grade),” he said, “which gives kids an understanding of where food comes from and a higher appreciation for farmers.”
Regarding short and long term gains for United States agriculture, Vilsack said, “Every time we open an opportunity or enter into a free trade agreement, it’s good for agriculture. Exports represent about 30 percent of all the gross income received by the farm community.”
Vilsack noted we already do between 300 and 400 million dollars worth of business with Cuba. Some trade barriers have been removed, some restrictions have been eased and the process is less complex than in the past. “It isn’t everything it needs to be but we’re going to see an increase in trade opportunities,” he said. “In the long term, it’ll be everything we sell.”
One farmer asked if there were more ways to help young and beginning farmers get started without compromising programs for existing farmers. “We have been looking at this, and we’ll be announcing additional resources under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program that helps create an avenue for folks to get a business plan together, look at market opportunities and figure out how to get started,” said Vilsack. “The Farm Bill contains some new opportunities in terms of beginning farmer credits and risk management tools that make it a little bit less expensive for that new, beginning farmer to get started. We’ve established the new microloan program, with now over 9,000 microloans.” The program also looks at expanding market opportunities for beginning farmers so that they don’t have to compete in commodity markets where they may be at a disadvantage.
Vilsack discussed the surge of returning veterans who are interested in farming. “Many of them have rural roots and may want to return to that small town and get some acreage to get started. The availability of land is an impediment. They’ve got credit, but do they have access to land?”
Regarding tax reform, Vilsack pointed out the most common issue he hears from farm audiences is estate taxes. “I think we need to broaden the conversation to include income tax,” said Vilsack. “The reality is that there are a lot of folks out there, like me and my wife Christie, who own a farm but don’t operate it. We’ve owned it for some time, and it has appreciated in value, but there’s no income tax incentive whatsoever for us to consider selling that land; making it available to a young, beginning farmer. If we did, we’d pay a significant amount of capital gains tax.”
When it comes to conservation issues, Vilsack says American farmers take a long view — they’re concerned about about the far-reaching implications of maintaining water quantity and quality. Non-farmer operators may not have that long-term view. Is there a way we can make sure that isn’t compromising conservation efforts?
Vilsack says there are three aspects to the conservation topic: investment, assessment and education. “It’s important for us to figure out ways we can encourage and incent farmers to do what they’ve been doing historically and have them continue to invest in soil health, water quality and water quantity,” he said. Vilsack says he doesn’t think the general public realizes the magnitude of what farmers have invested in conservation efforts.
“We will soon be announcing first round of regional conservation projects under the new Farm Bill,” he said, explaining the program. “This will allow us to shine a very bright light on the investment side of what’s already taking place. People can be assured that farmers are very sensitive and very concerned.”
Assessment of programs has already started. “If you can quantify and measure a result, then you can market that result to regulated industries that need that conservation result,” he said. “We’re seeing ecosystem markets crop up across the United States, and that’s another income opportunity for farms. An assessment system allows us to go to government and present proof that work being done voluntarily is making a difference — reducing nitrogen, reducing phosphorus, improving water quality. We need to incent and continue that.”
Vilsack pointed out that the condition of water didn’t just happen last year. “It has evolved over a long period of time and there is no quick fix,” he said. “It’s going to take a concerted, committed effort over a long time, but we know from the assessments that we’re doing through USDA that conservation is working.” He referenced a comparative assessment for the Chesapeake Bay that started with baseline measurements in 2009, with a recent assessment that showed measurable improvement in Bay health.
The third aspect, education, includes everyone — farmers, ranchers, those in agribusiness and in government — doing a better job of educating the public about what is happening. “I don’t think there’s awareness of how much investment the farm community has made,” said Vilsack. “When you talk about 600,000 producers, 400 million acres and billions of dollars that USDA matches with the billions of dollars that farmers invest, you can see that farmers are taking it seriously.”
When asked what the USDA can do to instill some common sense in the regulatory process, Vilsack replied, “There’s an expectation that the USDA can impose common sense on other agencies. That’s not the way it works. We (USDA) make an effort to educate our sister agencies about the impact that a particular regulation may have. We’re trying to get people to understand the real-life implications of activities. It’s a respectful partnership.” Vilsack says because so few people farm and so many people are generations removed from farming, there isn’t a solid understanding of how difficult it is, and how slim the margins are for many farm families