Vilsack Focused on Farmer Profitability
In his opening days of his second stint as head of USDA, Tom Vilsack is focused on farmer profitability and opening markets to build that profitability.
“I’m talking about deepening our presence in export markets, because that's going to continue to be an important component to trying to bring profitability back into farming for more and more farms,” Vilsack told AgriTalk Radio’s Chip Flory. “I'm talking about the necessity of having local and regional food systems that provide farmers an alternative market where they aren't necessarily limited to a commodity price that's fixed on the Board of Trade. I'm talking about the ability to have more open and transparent and fair markets, particularly within the livestock area, and having more competition for the livestock that's being raised by our farmers.”
The markets focus also allows for inclusion of a big agenda of the Biden Administration – climate change mitigation.
“I'm talking about new markets, the opportunity to basically encourage farmers to sequester carbon and be paid for it,” Vilsack added. “Encourage farmers to capture methane and reuse it and convert it, and taking agricultural waste and converting it into a variety of different products, which now creates, instead of waste, an ingredient that can be sold on a market.”
The Biden Administration has made it clear that mitigating climate change is a priority for all federal agencies and that USDA is looking closely at forming some sort of carbon market, but details on what that action will look like for farmers has been cloudy. Vilsack offered up a few more details to AgDay’s Clinton Griffiths, saying he’s looking at two tracks for addressing climate change.
“It's taking a look at the current farm bill programs that we have and making sure that they are targeted and focused in providing help and assistance to the climate-smart regenerative practices we know work to improve soil health and also to sequester carbon. And to encourage and incent more of that activity by using the regular farm bill programs,” he said.
The second part, of course, is designing a carbon market. Vilsack told Griffiths the current carbon markets are designed to benefit investors. He wants to craft a carbon marketplace designed specifically for agriculture.
“There are 138 million market credits out there today on various markets, only two and a half million of those credits in the carbon area are focused on farming and agriculture,” Vilsack said. “Now what we need is one that's specifically designed for farmers that provides the opportunity for farmers to absolutely benefit financially from investments that they would make in improved soil health and in carbon sequestration. If we are to have that kind of market, it's going to be necessary for us to figure out ways in which the incentives work for farmers, ways in which we can accurately measure and quantify the results so that we're in a position of being able to provide significant resources and significant income opportunities for farmers in the future. And do right by the environment, and also potentially create new job opportunities in rural places as well.”
FSA Staffing Issues
As Farm Service Agency offices observe social distancing requirements due to COVID-19 it’s forcing many employees to work from home and farmers have expressed concerns about being able to submit paperwork on time.
Vilsack said they are working to staff up offices, but ultimately it depends on safety and the rate of vaccinations.
“We're going to try to open up those offices as quickly as we can, but we have to do it as safely as we can, consistently pursuant to what we know from CDC is appropriate under the current circumstances,” he said. “Here's the key, the more people who get vaccinated, and the more quickly we get them vaccinated, the greater the chances are that we can return to the new normal. And that new normal obviously will involve reopening offices, sort of on a on a case by case basis.”
USDA is holding up payments from the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) as part of a global review of Trump Administration policies that were enacted during the lame-duck period. That review covers both $2.3 billion in CFAP 1 & 2 money that was targeted largely for contract hog and poultry producers and the entire $13 billion in the CFAP 3 program that included $20 per acre payments for many program crops.
Vilsack hinted there may be some changes coming for those CFAP priorities.
“The reason [USDA is reviewing CFAP] is that we're taking a bit of time to study precisely where the previous resources have been invested to determine where the gaps are. Congress, when they passed the third relief package, basically identified a number of areas they thought needed additional attention. I use the biofuel industry for example, that's one industry that didn't get much help, if any, from the COVID relief packages in the past. Is that something that could potentially be assisted and helped with this third tranche of money?” Vilsack asked.
What else could benefit from USDA’s review of CFAP?
“There's so much need here, within the supply chain. There is the need to basically make sure that our ag workers in the processing facilities are adequately protected, and there were expenses incurred as a result of these protections. Do we need to do more in that area? Do we need to help the biofuel industry? Are there specialty crop producers that weren't really part of a more large scale, commodity-based set of payments in the past?” he said. “The great thing about American agriculture is its enormous diversity, but it represents a real challenge in the face of a national pandemic where all aspects of agriculture got impacted, being able to provide help and assistance to as many people as we possibly can.”
Vilsack said while payments may still be several weeks away because of the need for rulemaking in some instances farmers will “have a good sense of where we think the resources need to be directed and in what level within the next couple of weeks or so.”