Vilsack’s Says Production Agriculture is Unsustainable

Secretary Vilsack Still Doesn’t Get It… This week the Secretary of Agriculture hosted his highly touted “National Summit on Rural America,” what I’ve been describing as a USDA “field trip” to Missouri. Vilsack loaded up his top brass and hosted their own echo chamber on what’s wrong with Rural America, and how this USDA Administration is going to fix it. The Secretary offered this commentary at The Huffington Post, continuing his focus on rural economic development.

“More rural Americans are over the age of 65 and few have graduated college,” Vilsack writes.  “More than half of America’s rural counties are losing population and with it, political representation.” So perhaps for the first time we really hear why this USDA is so unconcerned with the traditional “farm” programs at USDA, and so obsessed with programs geared toward the niches of American agriculture: political power. Farmers, as we all know, are fewer and farther between, representing by some measures as few as one percent of the total populace.

And yet, we’ve seen a great deal of interest in folks returning to their rural roots for the wide open spaces and good clean living. The tens of millions of Americans living in flyover country, however, are still an important piece of the political pie. They helped win states like Ohio for President Bush not once, but twice. Just take a look at some of the red state/blue state maps that are colored by county. The number of rural counties painted red are staggering. Realizing this, USDA is doing everything it can to turn these traditional strongholds of Conservatism into nanny state outposts in a year when the majority party is expected to lose at least some Congressional ground.

The most telling thing about this whole “Rural Summit” exercise, however, came in a dispatch from fellow Farm Broadcaster Stewart Doan of AgriPulse. “Small farm and sustainable ag advocates dominated the question and answer session,” Doan reported on our broadcast this morning.  “Leaders of major farm and commodity groups were largely absent from the day long session.”

Most likely missing the gravity of that key fact, Vilsack instead continued his offensive against the mainstream farm community: “I think we have to speak with a single voice here,” Vilsack said.  “There are too few of us…to have this consistent and constant battle between production agriculture and sustainable agriculture.” WHOA, major red flag moment here. My problems with that little statement are many, but let’s start with the most obvious. In one sentence, Vilsack has tacitly suggested that the vast majority of farmers encompassing “production agriculture” are somehow not sustainable!

If, in his words, there is a “battle” between production and sustainable agriculture, from where does he think it originates? The farmers I know and work with on a daily basis certainly want sustainable operations and business models; most of them are multigenerational to begin with, and most have children or business partners looking to continue producing food well into the future. Perhaps if there is some dissension among farm folks it stems not from sustainable vs. unsustainable, but from the continued realization in farm country that Secretary Vilsack doesn’t put a whole lot of emphasis on the traditional responsibilities of the United States Department of Agriculture.

This is the most combative USDA I’ve worked with in a decade covering this community and industry, and it is beyond frustrating to hear the titular leader of American agriculture continue to beating the war drums in the face of the overwhelming majority of his constituents. As I’ve said many, many times, it will take ALL of us in food production to continue delivering an abundant and nutritious food supply to an ever-growing population, including organic and conventional, specialty and commodity, traditional and niche farmers and producers.

Vilsack both ignores this fact, and berates those of us who continue to question his either willful ignorance or intentional aggression. The Secretary serves at the pleasure of the President, and it gives me pause to wonder just how long a President from Illinois can tolerate a Secretary who really doesn’t seem to like farmers all that much.