“America needs a farm bill, and we need it now,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, speaking to a record breaking group of grain farmers at the Commodity Classic in Nashville, Tenn.

Sec. Vilsack elaborated that all Americans, not just U.S. farmers, need a farm program and that getting a viable program in place will further help agriculture to aid the recovery of the U.S. economy.

The former Iowa farmer and two-time governor of the state pointed the finger of delay straight at the U.S. Congress. “Saying budgets are tight and complaining about how hard it is to pass a farm bill won’t make it any easier next year, and we do not need an extension of the current farm bill,” Vilsack said.

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Vilsack compared the congress that voted into law the DOA and today’s legislative body.

“A hundred and fifty years ago, in the midst of a civil war, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that created the USDA, established a transcontinental railroad, and provided hard to find funds to establish the Land-Grant system of universities that has paid so many dividends to U.S. citizens.”

“Today’s legislators need to quit pointing the finger of blame and the difficulty of our economic times and get things done. The legislature of 150 years ago passed legislation that provided an investment in the future of America, and our current legislators need to take a cue from their predecessors and get some things done in Washington, Vilsack said.

“In my farming days, when a combine broke down, we didn’t sit around and argue about whose fault it was. We figured out a way to fix it and got the combine back in the field,” he added.

“The first thing a new farm bill must include is a safety net for farmers. U.S. farmers, mostly in the Southwest, lost 55 million acres of farm production to weather related disasters last year. “Without an insurance program to get them from one crop to the next, some of these growers would be out of business. In our quest to provide food for future generations, in an ever increasingly over-populated world, we simply can’t afford to lose farmers to weather problems, he said.

Over the past three years the federal government guaranteed payment of over $30 billion in crop insurance claims. Still, the insurance concerns that made those payments made money, and even provided about a 10 percent positive return on tax dollars — that makes a strong case for a viable crop insurance program, Vilsack added.

Must continue market building

“The new farm bill also must provide resources for us to continue to build agricultural markets — both in the U.S. and in foreign countries. Farm exports of more than $42 billion last year contributed significantly to the U.S. balance of trade and continues to play a key role in the recovery of the U.S. economy,” the Secretary said.

“The farm bill must also address ways to expand our bio-based economy, because this is by far the best avenue available to rebuild America’s rural economy. Farmers must have the flexibility to create local markets and to build our bio-based industries.”

Vilsack got a standing ovation when he said, “I would like to see our bio-based economy produce 18 percent of our fuel supply, which is exactly the amount we currently buy from the Middle East.

“I would much prefer to buy gasoline made from American grown products than from a group of people who have caused us so much pain in the past few years.”

“The congress that will be charged with passing a new farm bill must recognize that American farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of soil, water and air. They must have regulatory certainty of the rules in any conservation programs included in the new farm bill,” he said.

Vilsack noted that his office made available this past weekend a new program that would add a million acres to the CRP program.

The government pays farmers to idle about 30 million acres of erodible land. However, contracts on about 6.5 million acres expire Sept. 30. With high corn and soybean prices, there is concern that farmers might put more of the land into production to increase profitability.

The new program focuses on encouraging land to be set aside for wetlands restoration, increasing enrolled land by 200,000 acres. Grasslands enrollment increases by 700,000 acres, including land for duck nesting and upland bird habitat.

The program also establishes 100,000 new acres to be set aside for pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Vilsack said the new CRP land will open many doors for development of outdoor recreational activities. He pointed out that recreation is a multi-billion dollar industry in the U.S. It has proven to be recession-proof and would provide a tremendous impetus to jump-start rural economies around the country.

The new farm bill cannot significantly cut, and really should increase, budgets for agricultural research, Vilsack said. “We have a research system, via our Land-Grant universities, that has been the envy of the world for a long time, and we need to build, not destroy this system.

“Farm labor is rapidly becoming a limiting factor in U.S agricultural production is some areas of the country. “The new farm bill must address the issue of immigration in a way to allow states to regulate farm labor and provide a viable labor force that is legal and affordable for the farmers who need it, Vilsack said.

“The compilation of all these components of the next farm bill must come together in a way that will inspire new, young people to get involved in farming as a way to make a hard-earned living for their families.”

The Ag Secretary got a second standing ovation when he concluded, “Without a new generation of farmers, America’s agricultural industry will be in trouble.”

(At the American Farm Buruea Annual Convention in January, Vilsack also had some strong words about the farm bill situation as he pointed out what he considered vital points. To see those comments, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/government/vilsack-outlines-vital-points-next-farm-bill).

rroberson@farmpress.com