Vilsack: Take a Chance, Take a Risk

Ag Secretary talks about the future of rural America in a Nashville speech. We need to talk to the young...and to the Humane Society.

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Editor’s Note: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack gave a speech Monday to the American Farm Bureau convention in Nashville. Given that on this same day, the White House announced that Vilsack would continue at USDA, this speech could be seen as setting the Secretary’s agenda for the next four years — a kind of State of the (Rural) Union. 

The full speech can be found here. We’ve excerpted below the last two-thirds of the speech. In this part of the speech, Vilsack calls for more diversity, more engagement and wider political alliances.

The question, given all (that rural America contributes to the nation), is why is it so difficult for us to get a five-year (farm) bill through the Congress? 

What has happened? Why is this the first time in recent memory that bill passed through the Senate, through the agricultural committee, and yet was stymied and didn’t get done. 

Whether we like it or not, I think we have to address and have to acknowledge that the political clout that rural America once had, it doesn’t have as much today. And it’s going to be important and necessary for us to have conversation about how we rebuild that political capacity, and I believe we can.

Let me give you a few suggestions. 

First of all, it starts with an understanding and appreciating the real problem we face in rural America, which is in the last census, 1130 rural counties in America, over 50 percent of the rural counties in America lost population. 16 percent of America’s population in rural America is the lowest percentage in our history. 

It’s pretty simple. Fewer people, ultimately reflects itself in fewer people in Congress, in state legislatures who understand and appreciate the challenges and the opportunities in rural America. That means that we have got to begin to look at ways in which we can expand our influence.

One way we could do that is for the American Farm Bureau and other key agricultural groups to look for opportunities to convey the agricultural message in a non-conventional way. Let me give you an example.

Why I Like Chuck

Now, I could probably take a poll of all of the people here about your attitudes about Chuck Hagel as Secretary of the Defense. There may be some of you who want him and some of you who may not. There may be some who have concerns about his position on Israel or on Iran. 

But let me tell you why I want Chuck Hagel – because he’s from Nebraska.

And being from Nebraska, he understand and appreciates the role of the bio-based economy, and he would be a Secretary of Defense that I think would probably be quite supportive of the notion that our military should be more dependent on domestically-produced fuel and energy than on imported energy. He could be a Secretary of Defense who could champion our commitment to the bio-based economy. And so the American Farm Bureau and farmers and ranchers in this country have a stake in who the Secretary of Defense might be, and we ought to express that. We ought to let folks know we’re interested in that nominee’s position on biofuels and the bio-based economy.

Well, what about the Treasury Secretary? Why should we be at the American Farm Bureau Convention interested in the Treasury Secretary aside from the role he plays, or she plays, in providing the economy and the economic strength of the country and protecting it. It’s because that department has a new market tax credit program that provides hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to support economic opportunity. And it’s necessary that we look at ways in which those programs at the treasury department can be used to invest in rural opportunities. So it matters to America who that Treasury Secretary is, and we ought to have something to say about that. We ought to be questioning the nominee about his views of the new market tax credits and the ability to grow rural America.

In addition to building and reaching out to key — in key spots like the Treasury Secretary, and the Secretary of Defense, and the EPA Administrator and the Commerce Secretary, we need to focus on building strategic alliances in rural America, and not just within agriculture.

I applaud the Iowa — I mean the American Farm Bureau and Bob Stallman and all of those who had the foresight and the vision to create the Farmer and Rancher Alliance, an opportunity for agriculture to come together and speak with a unified and single voice. That’s important.

Can’t Just Talk to Ourselves

But we’ve got to extend beyond just talking to ourselves. We’ve got to embrace diversity. And there is a tremendous opportunity to extend our alliances strategically with the issue of immigration. Agriculture has a stake in the immigration debate. Agriculture wants and needs immigration reform. Agriculture must have a steady and stable supply of labor. And agriculture relies on immigrant labor for that steady supply.

This is a wonderful opportunity for us in rural America to embrace diversity, to embrace an immigration policy that makes sense, to embrace comprehensive immigration reform, to embrace the solving of this problem that has vexed us for so long, the creation of a stronger immigration system in this country. 

And in doing so, reaching out to the Evangelical faith-based community, in reaching out to Hispanic-serving organizations and creating friendships and alliances and an understanding of what goes on in rural America and the important role that rural America plays in the lives of all Americans and all those who wish to be Americans.

Building strategic alliances, extending the reach of key farm groups, constructive engagement, it will be necessary for us to continue what we started the last several years of constructively engaging those where we may have questions or difficulties. 

I take it as a positive sign that we were able to talk to and visit with Lisa Jackson as the EPA Administrator. That she was willing to visit farms and ranches; that she was willing to have frequent visits with farm leaders. That’s constructive engagement. And I think it made a difference in terms of the attitude that the administrators had about issues involving and affecting rural America. That constructive engagement must continue with the new administrator, and I pledge to you that I will do everything I can to make sure that happens.

The nutrition community. Rather than raising issues about SNAP, we should be figuring out ways in which we can connect to those who are advocating for nutrition. It expands significantly our reach. It develops an alliance and a friendship and a relationship that brings common cause to the passage of a five-year bill.

Talking With The Humane Society

And, frankly, those who are engaged in constructive engagement, they shouldn’t be faulted for doing so. Now, I know that there are not too many fans of the Humane Society in this room, but egg producers thought it was in their best interest to avoid 50 different referendums, 50 different sets of rules, so they sat down with folks and they reached common ground. After all, isn’t that what we’re asking our Congress to do?

Isn’t that what we’re asking our political leaders to do, to sit down and make common cause? I think the egg producers have the right idea. Now, the issues may be different for different types of producers, but we need to be constructively engaged at all times in conversations. We may not find agreements, but I think we will substantially reduce those who oppose farming and substantially reduce the reach of those, and hopefully be able to get enough proactive activity that results in a five-year bill.

And I think we need a proactive message. You know, I’ve been in a lot of groups and I’ve met with a lot of farmers. And I have actually done this as a governor, as a state senator, as a mayor, and as a lawyer. And I’ll certainly do it as the Secretary of Agriculture. And I understand how difficult this is. I understand how frustrating it can be, to be the best in the world at what you do and not have folks appreciate it.

Making a Case to the Young

But I also know that we’ve got to make a case to the young people of this country that there is unlimited opportunity in rural America. That it is the place to be, it’s the place to do, it’s the place to make a difference. 

If I were talking to a young person today, I would say – are you interested in accepting the moral challenge of our time? Are you interested in figuring out how not just to feed us in America, but to feed the world? Are you interested in eradicating hunger? Well, then you can help do that in rural America.

If I were speaking to a young person, I’d talk about the fact that for far too many years in this country we’ve not had the upward mobility in our economy that’s allowed people to work hard and play by the rules and rise up. Folks feel stuck. They feel frustrated. They feel angry. Well, the ability to re-introduce upward mobility in our economy can be found in rural America.

You see, we’re rebalancing our economy. We’re getting away from solely relying primarily on consumption and getting back in the business of making, creating, and innovating, producing. Well, who does producing better than the folks in rural America? There’s unlimited opportunity to make, create, and innovate in this bio-based economy in rural America.

If I were talking to a young person, I would say, you’re concerned about our overreliance on foreign oil, you can solve that problem in rural America. If I were talking to a young person who was concerned about the changing climate and the effects and impacts it will have on all of humanity, I will say to him or her the solution to that is likely to be in rural America.

We can inspire young people. We can encourage young people. We can create opportunities for young people, not just on the farm but in small towns all around this country. We can bring people back. We can keep people. And in doing so, we can create a message and a powerful message of the importance that rural America plays in the lives of every single American.

And then it becomes a little easier to explain to members of Congress from urban and suburban areas why a five-year bill is necessary. And it becomes impossible for political leadership to stop its passage, because too many people want it, too many people need it, and everybody understands the importance of it.

Explaining Rural…To the U.S. Chamber

That’s what this is about: Expanding the reach of key rural groups, building strategic alliances, constructively engaging even with those we disagree with, and a proactive message, enthusiastically, enthusiastically communicated to young people. They’re ready for this. The country’s ready for this.

Now I know I’m speaking to a group and you may be saying, Well, that’s great, Mr. Secretary, but are you doing all this? Are you reaching out to key groups? Are you building alliances? Are you constructively engaged with people that don’t necessarily agree with you? Are you providing a proactive message?

Well, let me tell you what I did. I was at dinner one night and I saw Tom Donohue, the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Tom’s a fellow who’s got white hair. He’s a striking guy. I went up to him and I said, you know, Tom, the Chamber of Commerce isn’t doing enough to talk about agriculture, isn’t doing enough to educate people about the extraordinary innovation that’s taking place in rural America. It’s ignoring rural America.

You know, a Democrat talking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce President, not an easy thing to, do, especially at the time when they were spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat my boss. Hard to do, but the right thing to do. And to Tom Donahue’s credit, he said, you know, Mr. Secretary, you’ve got a point, so here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to put you in touch with Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education under the Bush administration, and you and Margaret through our foundation can work on a program, and we’ll have that program after the election, and we’ll focus on innovation and we’ll focus on agriculture.

This is the most amazing thing, folks. They came over to the USDA. I don’t know the last time somebody from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was over in a Democratic administration at the USDA. I bet you it’s been awhile. They came over and they said, well, what’s going on in Agriculture?

The Tyranny of ‘Or’

And we told them all the amazing things that you’re doing: The extraordinary productivity, the extraordinary productivity, and the innovation of taking waste product, of taking hog manure and using it to build asphalt roads, and the ability to take corncobs and make plastic bottles for Coca-Cola, and the ability to take algae and produce fuel and all of these amazing discoveries happening in rural America. They were blown away. They had standing room only for this, for this half-day symposium. They had people stay through the entire morning session, which they said was unusual.

And they had a wonderful speech from Greg Page at the end of the day in which he talked about the tyranny of “or” and the power of “and”. Greg pointed out that when we get this “or” business – my way or your way, as opposed to my way and your way — it stifles innovation. It stifles agreement. It stifles consensus in that we’ve become too much of an “or” country.

It was a remarkable day. And at the end of it, the Chamber said, you know, we’ve learned so much about what you-all are doing. Could you help us on some additional topics like water? I said, well, we’re very interested in water at the USDA. We’ll be happy to work with you.

Folks, that’s what’s happening when we take a chance, take a risk.

 

 

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