The highest ranking agriculture member in the country had a candid conversation with roughly 100 guests – students and agricultural professionals – at the University of Arkansas on Tuesday (April 23.)
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was the speaker at the Dale and Betty Bumpers Distinguished Lecture Series on the UA campus. The lecture series was made possible by a grant from Tyson Foods and the Tyson family. Last year, President Bill Clinton was the inaugural speaker for the lecture series.
Vilsack joked that he hated to have to follow Clinton as speaker and warned the crowd not to expect too much. He spoke favorably of Bill and Hillary Clinton who he said helped him come from behind to win his bid for Iowa Governor several years ago. He then turned to former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers to say he was humbled to be speaking at function bearing the Bumpers name.
"When I set out on public service 25 years ago, Dale Bumpers was the one public servant I most chose to emulate. I only hope to accomplish half as much he did during his tenure.," he said.
Vilsack began with a simple message that resonated well in the room: "Rural farms are undervalued and under-appreciated by mainstream America today."
He spoke passionately about the need for more young farmers and agriculture research scientists who will help to feed a hungry world in the coming years.
“We are a food secure nation," he said. "Something even China can’t say today.”
That same message was recently shared with The City Wire by Anita Munyon, a young cattle and poultry farmer near Lincoln.
“We are fortunate to grow enough food in the country to feed our people because the family farms. I would hate to think about having to rely on some other nation for our food staples as volatile as world politics are today,” Munyon said.
Anita and her husband Jared, closed their dairy farm last year, when the economics no longer worked. Neither had ever wanted to anything but dairy for a living. That dream is gone, but they couple is still making a go of it with their large commercial beef cattle herd and a broiler grower business for Simmons Foods.
Vilsack said 32,000 family farms like the Munyon’s produce 50% of the food consumed in this country.
He said activist groups need to put down their signs and pick up the conversation, and organic farmers and larger commercial operations must figure out ways to coexist and thrive in the coming years as it will likely take “all hands on deck” to feed a growing world population amid shrinking land acreage.
He shared how food costs for American families pale in comparison to every other country in the world, largely because of the American farmer. It's a scene that is in jeopardy as more rural families migrate to jobs and professions in cities.
Vilsack outlined a few threats for the livelihood in rural America and the need for a five-year farm bill. First and foremost he addressed the ongoing labor shortage needed to harvest crops and work entry-level processing plant jobs, which are typically filled by immigrant populations.
“We need comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway for citizenship for the agriculture workers who have been doing those jobs for 20 years. We also need a guest worker program to ensure our farmers they have enough labor in the future,” Vilsack said.
Next he gave his full support for a five-year farm bill that could build in some protections and incentives to keep today’s youth on the family farm.
“It’s hard to fund long-term programs when the annual budget continues to shrink. I am working with less money today than I had in 2009,” he told the group.
He said the USDA will have to be more creative in the ways it helps. Aside from just doling out money, the agency can facilitate cooperative opportunities for expanded markets and localized farmer’s market initiatives. He shared that 7,800 local communities across the country have active farmer’s markets, and is proud of the fact these local markets have increased 68% over the past four years.
Vilsack said more food hubs are needed, as they can aggregate single producers into one seamless process that allows for the sale of food to institutions, like schools, hospitals and grocers.
“We need to do more of this because people want to know where their food comes from and how their farmers are. That’s a good thing because it connects people,” he said.
Finally, Vilsack said the bio-based economy provides a wide range of opportunity for rural America and requires our attention.
“Taking everything we grow, waste and all turning it into a more valuable commodity. They are taking hog waste and making asphalt of it in Ohio. Wisconsin is taking corncobs and producing plastic bottles for Coca Cola, taking wood products and turning into lighter more durable body armor through nanotechnology. This is the future,” he said.
Vilsack said as the planet is growing warmer, evident from the violent weather swings that dealt misery throughout the farm belt over the past several years, investment is needed today for the research that will save the farms 30 to 40 years from now.
“We have got to think about water shortages, creates ways in which we can mitigate the risks of pests that are result of a warmer climate. If we don’t adapt mitigation strategies some of what we grow through the country might not be possible in the next three to four decades,” he said.
He said all of these threats facing rural America can be addressed if the right conversations are happening.
“I talk to farmers all across the country and hear about too much regulation and high taxes. While that may be true as they see it, that’s not the message we need to send our kids today. We need to have a proactive message to the young people here. One that shares the potential for reshaping the future. Because they can help to rebuild the value system in rural America and rise to leadership roles at a very early age,” Vilsack said.
He said the 1% of farm population still has to convince the other 99% that the job they perform is worth saving. That comes with open conversations, breaking down barriers and working together toward a common causes, he said.
“The entire value system of this nation is wrapped up in the family farm and is what has made this nation great.” he said.