Secretary of Agriculture supports bills

Two bills currently being considered by Congress are important to the American people for a number of reasons and should be passed sooner rather than later, according to a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke to The Minot Daily News in a phone interview Thursday and stressed the importance of getting the farm bill, otherwise known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, passed.

“I’m certainly excited about the fact that both the Senate ag committee and the House ag committee have completed their work. Hat’s off to the committee chair and ranking members for leading that effort,” Vilsack said. “And hopefully we’ll see quick and comprehensive action by both the Senate and the House soon to get bills through their respective chambers so that we can iron out whatever differences exist.”

Vilsack said a new farm bill is needed restore the disaster assistance programs that are vital to livestock and dairy producers. He also said the United States must continue its commitment to trade and research, as well as expanded opportunities in local and regional food systems.

“We need a farm bill. We need it now, for a multitude of reasons,” Vilsack said. “We need certainty in the countryside.”

In Vilsack’s view, a continuation of a conservation compliance requirement is also needed, as it would tie into crop insurance since direct payments would be eliminated. Growing the rural economy through energy and bio-based market opportunities is also important to Vilsack.

“So a lot of work to do, and a very important bill, not the least of which is to provide nutrition assistance to folks who are struggling,” Vilsack said. “Hopefully we’re headed in the right direction.”

While the farm bill has been a long time coming – it was first introduced in the Senate a year ago in May 2012 – Vilsack is hopeful it will be passed in the near future.

“The good news is that Sen. (Harry) Reid, (D-Nev.) the majority leader of the Senate, has indicated a desire to get this bill on the floor of the Senate as early as potentially next week. And if that were to happen it would certainly be a positive sign of the importance of getting it done,” Vilsack said. “House leadership, both the Speaker of the House, Speaker (John) Boehner, (R-Ohio), and the majority leader, (Eric) Cantor, (R-Va.), have indicated this is a priority for them. So I would expect that the House would follow suit shortly.

“That’s certainly the hope, the expectation, so perhaps we can get a bill done very soon. That would be good news to rural America and to those who farm and ranch because we’d have certainty about what the policies would be for the next five years.”

As 2012 drew to close and the new farm bill still hadn’t passed, an extension was given to the provisions of the 2008 farm bill until September 2013. Vilsack said in the event the new farm bill isn’t passed and the extension of the old one expires, the farm bill would revert to law passed in 1946, which he said would have drastic impacts and effects on farm operations across the country.

“More importantly, we would not have the reinstitution of the disaster assistance programs that are so vital for livestock and dairy producers,” Vilsack said.

He went on to list a slew of things that would no longer exist without a modern farm bill, including the opportunity to create less volatility in the dairy industry, the commitment to a bio-based economy and bioenergy, trade promotion authority, and a commitment to research, which he said is extremely important to deal with issues of a varying climate.

There also wouldn’t be conservation programs to provide assistance to producers, and there wouldn’t be additional support for specialty crop producers and organic producers.

“So there’s a lot of reasons that we need Congress to get its work done and to get it done quickly,” Vilsack said. “I think there was an expectation this work was going to get done last year, and there was a failure to do so. But hopefully there’s a different attitude this year, particularly in the House.”

Vilsack believes successfully passing the farm bill will help build momentum for other important legislation that needs to be passed in a bipartisan way, namely the immigration bill.

“I think it’s very important for us to get the comprehensive immigration bill through the process. We have workforce shortages in many parts of agriculture today which is compromising our ability to get the work done in the field and at the ranch,” Vilsack said. “And that’s obviously going to compromise our food security in this country and open us up to having to import food from other countries where we have food safety issues.”

He hopes Congress will tackle the immigration bill this summer.

While it’s obviously more expensive to import food from other countries, Vilsack said the food safety issues are foremost in his mind when the topic of importing food from foreign countries is broached.

“You have equivalency requirements, but if it’s produced, processed and packaged in the U.S. you know there is a system that’s keeping an eye on it,” Vilsack said. “If it’s produced, processed and packaged in some other country there’s an equivalency requirement in terms of food safety, but there are just additional risks there. I don’t like to have to be dependent on other countries for our food supply.”

Vilsack is confident in the ability of the United States to be a food-secure nation that has the capacity to produce its own food to feed its own citizens. It’s an ability he doesn’t want to see slip away.

“That’s a national security advantage that we have that we shouldn’t sacrifice because we can’t get legislation through the process,” he said.

According to Vilsack, the country needs about 1.1 million people to work in agriculture, and of that number working today roughly 500,000 to 700,000 are probably not in the United States with the proper documentation.

“But they have been here for a long period of time, and they have worked hard for a long period of time, and they have gotten the job done for a long period of time,” Vilsack said.

For those people, Vilsack said the immigration bill would provide a pathway so they could come out of the shadows and into the sunlight, so to speak, and fully contribute to this country.

“But in order to do so they have to recognize that they were wrong in coming into this country without documentation, and the way they recognize that is by paying a fine,” Vilsack said. “They need to understand that they have a responsibility to support this country and that means if they owe taxes they need to pay those taxes.”

He said they also need to learn the English language, and when they do – assuming they have no serious criminal background – they ought to be given an opportunity and a pathway to citizenship. While that pathway will take a long time, Vilsack said it gives them the assurance that if they work hard and play by the rules they can be part of this country.

Vilsack said immigrants don’t fully meet the need of the agricultural workforce, so it has to be complemented with a guest worker system that’s flexible enough to be adjusted up or down to meet the needs of the agriculture industry. He also said the system needs to be calibrated so doesn’t make it difficult for American workers to find jobs.

“Obviously we want Americans to get the jobs first, but if in whatever area of the country that can’t happen, we want to be able to make sure the farms and ranches continue to be productive,” Vilsack said. “So you create a guest worker system that invites workers into the country, knows who they are, knows where they are, knows what they’re doing, and have them complement that permanent workforce and be able to calibrate it based on demand.

“So if we don’t need as many workers in one year as the next, we are able to calibrate it down in terms of the number of guest workers. If we see an increase in work, that we’re able to calibrate it back up so that we have the right balance and that we have wage levels and working conditions that respect the people who are doing this hard and difficult work.”