Tom Vilsack spoke to the US NFU virtual convention about income streams, climate change and racism in the agriculture industry. John Wilkes reports
Newly confirmed US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, US farmers must ’get on the other side of the Covid-19 situation to return to whatever the new normal will be’, recognising problems persisted for US farm income before the pandemic.
With only days in the position he occupied for eight years in the Obama administration, Mr Vilsack explained at the US National Farmers Union virtual convention (March 1), the ’USDA is a different department. It is a different time and frankly, I am a different person."
He told delegates 89.6 per cent of farmers do not make most of their income on farm.
He was ’amazed’ by this fact - better and fairer markets would help remedy this situation.
Mr Vilsack believes agriculture’s role in climate change mitigation offers new revenue streams.
For instance, financial incentives in viable markets for carbon sequestration, ’designed, constructed and implemented by farmers for farmers’ can play a role, he said.
He added US carbon goals can only be met by engaging rural communities.
The USDA will invest in such programs along with new opportunities to convert agricultural waste into a variety of products - chemicals, materials, fabrics and fibres, he said, adding the collection and use of methane derived from livestock operations will add to the renewable energy mix.
Soil health is a priority. Every year 4.4 tons of soil is lost per acre and only one-half ton is replaced.
Mr Vilsack said existing government programs must promote and expand ’climate smart and regenerative practices’ as a counter measure.
He said US agriculture could benefit from more widespread farm to school programs, food hubs and farmers markets whereby prices are determined by farmers to help expand regional and local food systems.
For existing trade initiatives, ’the letter and spirit of the agreement’ must be followed.
Mr Vilsack cited concerns with Canada’s response on wheat and dairy under the United States Mexico Canada Agreement.
He proposed more fairness in the treatment of socially disadvantaged producers.
The Equity Commission will investigate all USDA programmes to identify and root out systemic racism. The American Rescue Plan currently before Congress addresses long held racism.
In 2020, Congress enacted two Covid-19 relief packages. A third relief bill worth $1.9 trillion (£1.36 trillion) just passed by the US House of Representatives needs Senate approval.
The USDA will assess the first two relief packages to see how resources were deployed to ensure future equity and fairness.
Previously, producers in the top 10 per cent received 60 per cent of funds and the bottom 10 per cent received only 0.6 per cent.
Mr Vilsack added: “Everyone in the supply chain gets a fair shot at resources."