Asked about the House Republican agriculture budget proposal, Vilsack said he “appreciates that everyone is serious about tackling these deficits” but cautioned that budget cutting must not kill needed economic growth.

“We have to be smart … and responsible how we go about it. We have to make sure we don’t compromise our ability to invest in growth opportunities. The growth opportunities in the 2012 budget are biofuels, additional research on livestock … and crop production and protection, work potentially in conservation, ecosystem markets and exports. Those are all growth opportunities … and we want to make sure we don’t jeopardize our capacity to grow our way out of this deficit in addition to cutting our way out of the deficit.

“It’s a balance. So, we’ll work with our friends in Congress … to try to find where that proper balance is.”

Safety net

Vilsack’s comments on direct payments will surely perk up interest among larger farm operations. “We have released our income forecasts for 2011. What that basically showed is that while there’s overall income growth in agriculture, it isn’t necessarily equitably distributed among all sized operations.

Even so, “the safety net is a very, very important part of our overall commitment to agriculture and in this country. … But it needs to be targeted and focused on the people who need it the most.

“With incomes rising, roughly, 30 percent and some of that increase being directed at some of the larger operations, we feel this is a proposal that merits consideration. During the last couple of years, there has been some indication from (members) of the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee — particularly on the Republican side — in some interest in this. So, we’ve proposed it again in hopes of getting consensus. 

“To me, it’s really about making sure the safety net does what it needs to do. And, at the same time, we need to be focused, as well – not just on reducing budgets in this respect but also increasing investments and ways we can help producers to sell more.”

Thus the reason for the Obama administration’s “promoting additional export assistance because that’s targeted towards the larger commercial enterprises. It’s the reason why we continue to focus on regional and local food systems because that helps the small producer. And it’s the reason why we focus additional resources on things like biofuels because that – and conservation payments -- can be targeted towards folks in the middle.

“If you understand the breakdown of size-of-operation, commodities and so forth, you can see there is a need for a safety net. But it needs to be targeted and focused.”

Outbreaks and earmarks

Diseases and pest infestations are a constant worry in agriculture. With many in D.C. swearing off “earmarks” how can funds needed to fight an outbreak be secured?

“Within APHIS, particularly, we invest roughly $1 billion a year in a variety of efforts to eradicate, prevent or mitigate the impact of pests, invasive species and diseases,” said Vilsack. At the same time, we’re also focusing a significant amount of our research dollars on additional research in these areas.”