Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack received a thunderous ovation from a standing room only crowd at the Commodity Classic when he admonished the U.S. Congress to, “Forget about your party, forget about the people who paid for your last campaign, forget about your next campaign, and just do your job.”

The one time Iowa governor specifically urged Congress to end the sequester, give government agencies a budget, then rapidly get along with the business of passing a workable five-year farm plan that will allow farmers to do their job.

“In a modern, Democratic society this (sequestration) should not happen. The short-term damage and potential long-term damage is too great to risk,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said the USDA has some major challenges to tackle in the next few years, including a renewed emphasis on agricultural research. Even in tough budget times, the Obama administration understands the dire need to invest more heavily in agriculture, he said.

“Here in Florida, the multi-billion dollar citrus industry has a serious problem with citrus greening that has put some areas of the state virtually out of the business. A USDA research team recently found commonly occurring dead bacteria that kills the insect that vectors citrus greening disease. That’s just one example of the kind of research we need to invest in as a nation,” Vilsack added.

Over the past few years, he said agriculture has been one of America’s best investments. In each of the past four years, agriculture has set a record for farm exports. “This year would likely set another record, but the inaction of our Congress puts that record in jeopardy,” Vilsack said.

“By cutting already skin tight budgets with further furloughs and other forms of budgetary cutbacks we risk stopping the momentum that agriculture has built over the past few years. We will have fewer trade missions and fewer people out in the world selling agriculture,” he said.

“Last year, in one of the worst droughts since the Dust Bowl era, U.S. corn growers still produced the fifth largest corn crop on record. That should tell the general public and more importantly our political leaders that American farmers can cope with adversity.

“What American farmers need is for Congress to do their jobs, so we can do ours,” Vilsack said, creating another resounding round of approval from the huge crowd of grain farmers in the audience.

“Thanks primarily to U.S. grain farmers, the percentage of foreign crude oil used by Americans dropped to 45 percent, down from 62 percent just a few years back. The increase in oil from renewable resources has created thousands of jobs and hundreds of new rural industries that simply didn’t exist when our country depended so heavily on foreign oil.

Stifling growth

“Despite the opportunities to revitalize our rural economy, the current actions of the U.S. Congress continue to stifle the growth of more and better rural businesses that could create jobs and revenue for a part of the U.S. that is so vital to the overall health of our nation,” Vilsack said.

“The U.S. population is now categorized as 16 percent rural. Despite that low percentage, more than 40 percent of the men and women who serve in our armed forces are from rural America. Young men and women from America’s farms continue to lead the way in protecting our country and making us the top military power in the world.

“Again, despite the vitality and strong work ethic of the young men and women rural America produces, we have lost our political relevance. Only one percent of the U.S. population is categorized as farmers — even under the most liberal definition of farmer.  The farmers who produce over 90 percent of the food in our country make up less than one-tenth of one-percent of the total population,” Vilsack said.

“Our farmers and our agricultural community simply cannot now put the fear of God into the people we elect. If we could do that, we would have a farm bill, but we don’t, and that has to change,” he added.

“The sequestration of the Federal budget simply should not happen — not in our modern society, not today,” the Secretary said.

“Every day the sequester stays in effect hurts agriculture. Short-term, food supplies will be disrupted. If we are forced to enforce a 15-day furlough on government meat inspectors, for example, there will be gaps in supply, which will cost animal agriculture millions, if not billions, of dollars at a time when many producers simply can’t afford those kinds of losses.

“In the long-term, our export markets could be irreparably harmed. We could lose as much as $8 million dollars in exports. In a year when we should be moving forward with new records in farm exports, we could actually be going backward,” Vilsack said.

“If everyone would just give a little, we could get this sequester solved, but no one wants to give up anything. Every American I talk to understands this concept, but Congress is just not listening to what we are telling them.

“We at USDA are spending much too much time on survival and much too little time on helping the farmers of America continue to contribute significantly to the economic recovery we so badly want and need.

“Agriculture faces the most pressing social issue in the history of mankind — how to feed a global population, which if it keeps on its current trend, will exceed our ability to feed.

“Rural America is perfectly situated to lead the way in solving this global challenge. Young people in rural America recognize the opportunity and want to be a part of meeting this daunting challenge, but the actions, or inactions of our political leaders are making that increasingly more difficult to do,” Vilsack said.

“This is not an impossible task. We have tightened our budget, we are focused on the issues that are negatively impacting American agriculture, and we are working with American farmers to provide programs that will help them remain profitable and sustainable.

But we must have the support of our political leaders to keep the growth in agriculture going to make it sustainable for future generations,” he said.

rorberson@farmpress.com