Vilsack delved into the farm bill debate. His remarks were delivered prior to the recent short-term extension of the 2008 farm law. Vilsack placed blame on the back of Congress for not passing a four-year law.

“The sad reality is Congress has failed to pass a (four year) farm bill,” legislation Vilsack referred to as the “Food, Farm, and Jobs bill.”

Without a long-term measure, he said funding for government-financed agricultural trade programs is in jeopardy, including the USDA’s market access program.

Vilsack’s message to Congress was plain and simple, “Pass this legislation, and restore the authorization and funding for these trade programs ... It’s not an impossible task.”

Vilsack said the lack of a long-term farm law opens the door to potential trading problems for U.S. agriculture. He said the U.S. can cede competitive trading efforts to foreign competitors. If market share is lost, it can be very difficult and very expensive to get it back.

Why is Congress unwilling to pass long-term farm legislation? The secretary suggested that American agriculture could be losing its political clout. When the USDA was formed 150 years, nearly 90 percent of the nation was connected to rural America. The number has shrunk to 16 percent.

“The other 84 percent of Americans may not fully appreciate the contributions of rural America,” said Vilsack. “They may understand that agriculture is the source of food but they probably don’t understand it’s also the source of most of the drinking water they enjoy.”

Many Americans, he said, are likely unaware that most of the energy used in this country is developed in rural communities. A portion of the fuel used in their cars likely came from rural areas. The fuel price may cost less than imported crude.

“Our message cumulatively in agriculture has been more of a reactive message rather than a proactive message,” Vilsack said. “We need to convey a strong pro-active message about the importance of agriculture and rural America to the rest of the country.”

The secretary stressed the need to get more young people involved in agriculture. He listed four cornerstones the administration has in place to bring more youth into the business of agriculture.

The cornerstones include:

  • Involvement in production agriculture and exports.
  • The capacity to expand local and regional food systems.
  • Conservation as a link to outdoor recreation to encourage more people to enjoy rural areas.
  • Bio-based economy.

The bio-based economy program, Vilsack explained, would add more value to current products on the market. A bio-based economy would help shift the country away from foreign oil through bio-refining and bio-processing tree and hog wastes, plants, and almond shells to produce chemicals, fabrics, fibers, and polymers.

“It is an exciting positive future. We need to promote it,” Vilsack concluded.