Speaking in Des Moines last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack answered questions about his future. He also highlighted his agency’s successes, said farmers and rural America are what inspire his work, and he was presented an award from the World Food Prize Foundation.
As he completes his 8-year run as a cabinet member in the Obama administration, Vilsack promised that USDA will “run through the tape” as the administration finishes its final lap around the track. The former Iowa governor is the 30th person to hold the post of U.S Ag Secretary. Vilsack joins an elite club of only four people who have held the position for 8 or more years.
Secretary Vilsack gives some clues about his future
At a press conference after addressing the Iowa Farm Bureau’s 2016 annual meeting, Vilsack said, “I don’t know precisely what my future is,” but he doubts it will include political office. However, he said he wants to continue his “advocacy for farmers and rural America.” And he wants to continue to work with bright, young people—to get them interested in agriculture and providing food for a hungry world.
Vilsack was asked, does this mean he is considering a post at a university? He said he would consider an affiliation. “But it would be important that a university understand the team Christie and I have been. She’s had an incredible run at USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development).” That’s where his wife Christie Vilsack is employed as a senior adviser for international education. “We understand the political system, so I think we could be helpful. We also want to make sure we have time in Iowa and Colorado to spend with family.” Tom Vilsack also said he “might have some value in Washington, D.C. after my term as Secretary of Agriculture is finished.”
A long list of accomplishments during his time at USDA
Vilsack said he is proud of the work USDA is doing. “The list of achievements our administration has accomplished is long, and it includes helping reduce food insecurity, helping rebuild rural communities and addressing lending discrimination claims against USDA,” he said. “My eight years in this office have been a great run.”
Discussing the growth of ethanol and biodiesel production and use, Vilsack commented, “The recent RFS announcement gets us to the 15 billion gallon mark. I think it restores confidence and faith in the Renewable Fuel Standard.” He also discussed USDA’s programs for reducing rural poverty and unemployment, his recent task force on opioid addiction, and the importance of world trade. “While many Americans don’t appreciate the importance of free trade, farmers understand this,” said Vilsack. “And they understand because global trade—the ability to sell U.S. farm products to foreign buyers— impacts our farmers’ bottom line.”
Ag secretary announces a new conservation program
The secretary also talked about improvements in clean water. He took the opportunity to build on past clean water programs by announcing a new USDA program—the Clean Lakes, Estuaries and Rivers initiative, or CLEAR program. “What this program will do, is it will provide resources from the Conservation Reserve Program to assist in sharing the cost of bioreactors and saturated buffers,” said Vilsack. “This will be two additional tools we will add to the tool chest of the CRP. Under this program we will provide a 90% cost-share. The only qualification is that the land be adjacent to water.”
The incoming Trump administration has pledged to tackle immigration, and Vilsack encourages comprehensive reform. “Everybody knows our immigration system is broken,” he said. “It needs to be fixed. We need to secure the border. But we also need to create some kind of stability in this workforce, particularly for agriculture—because 70% of our food is touched at some point in time by an immigrant hand and a substantial number of those folks came here, probably unauthorized, and as workers they need some kind of pathway to legitimacy.”
World Food Prize Foundation gives Vilsack and USDA an award
Later in the day last Wednesday, Vilsack gave a similar speech at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, also in Des Moines. He accepted the Norman Borlaug Medallion at the World Food Prize headquarters in recognition of the work USDA has done in training students for careers in agriculture, especially in developing countries. He challenged students to improve the world’s political stability by working to improve food security.
This medallion award was created to recognize institutions not eligible to receive the World Food Prize itself. “One of the reasons I stayed so long at USDA is because of the people I work with and the people I work for,” said Vilsack, who was appointed to his post in 2009. USDA workers are “committed to rural America and are committed to Norman Borlaug’s vision to use science to improve the lives of all people in the world—not just folks in the United States.”
Vilsack challenges the young people: think big, think bold
To the young people who were present, Vilsack said, “I’m challenging you to think big, to think bold. To think like Norman Borlaug did, asking how can I help? How can I be part of the solution? How can I bridge the gap between those who understand agriculture and those who don’t? How can I make a safer world through agriculture? How can I feed the hungry? How can I be a great humanitarian?”
By producing abundant supplies of reasonably priced food, U.S. farmers free Americans to pursue other careers. He said if his now deceased parents knew he was secretary of agriculture for 8 years, “they would have assumed the country was in really deep trouble.”
He added, “There was nothing in my upbringing that would suggest I’d have this job. In this great country, you can start in an orphanage, as I did, and you can end up in the White House, talking to the president, as I did two days ago.”
Secretary Vilsack reflected on his career as an elected official
Vilsack summed it all up: “I have been incredibly blessed by the state of Iowa. There is no reason why a kid from Pennsylvania should have had the opportunities I’ve had, but for the generosity and the openness and the willingness of the people of this state to give me a chance to serve as mayor of Mt. Pleasant, to serve as a state senator and as a governor. I certainly will always be indebted to President Obama for giving me the chance to serve him and our great country in this position as secretary of agriculture.”