Personnel Profile: Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack is President Obama’s secretary of agriculture. Recently, he has been part of a campaign to preserve public lands in the United States.

Tell me about the report you’re promoting.
The president recognizes, as I’m sure folks in California recognize, we’ve got to get Americans back to work and we’ve got to do it now. So, the President is proposing the American Jobs Act, which is really designed to get people back to work quickly, building on proposals that have been  suggested by both Republicans and Democrats over the course of the last several years. Key parts of it: Small businesses will be able to hire and grow because they are going to have a tax cut that basically cuts the payroll tax in half.

In California, that’s going to provide tax relief to over 700,000 small businesses. It’s also going to put folks back to work rebuilding and modernizing the American infrastructure. There are highways, rail systems, aviation systems, navigation systems that are in need of repair. For California we’re looking at roughly $4 billion dollars that could be used to hire construction workers and provide more opportunity for construction companies to basically build out that infrastructure.  Saving first responder and teacher jobs is another considerable part of this. And frankly, providing another opportunity for farmers and ranchers to expense out their capital purchases this year so that they will have a reduced tax bill at the end of the year.

How is land conservation a part of this?
What we want to do is reconnect the people with the great American outdoors. To do that we need to focus on private working lands, and providing conservation resources that allow those working lands to be protected, for the soil to be protected, the water to be clean, for habitat to be created. That creates job opportunities. If you have more wildlife, you have more hunting and fishing opportunities, you have more hiking and biking opportunities, you have an opportunity to reconnect people with the great American outdoors. We want to make sure that our farmlands are protected, because at the end of the day they provide us with food security, they provide us with 1 out of every 12 jobs in the economy. So, to the extent we can preserve farmland that is obviously extremely important.

To what extent does this effort represent the federal government stepping into the breach for programs that the states are no longer funding?
As a former governor of a state [Iowa], I understand there is a partnership between federal and state government. We face constrained resources at both a state and a federal level, we’ve got to figure out creative ways to leverage additional private sector investment. One way you do that is by suggesting that in exchange for landowners taking certain steps to use conservation practices on their land, they’ll receive assurances from regulatory agencies that they will be deemed in compliance with certain environmental regulations. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for business, it’s good for the landowner. It provides that certainty that makes it a little bit easier for folks to make that investment. If we can measure specifically what those conservation practices end up providing in the form of better and healthier environments, we are then able to go to businesses that need those results, to maybe work with them and encourage them to invest in those conservation practices as well.

There’s been a movement here in California wanting the country to reduce the subsidies to staple crops, like corn and wheat, and provide more support of vegetables and specialty crops.
When I came into the Office of Secretary of Agriculture, one of the things first I did was to restore what the previous administration had eliminated, which was a specialty block grant program that provides resources to specialty crop growers and folks who are reliant on specialty crops, and additional resources to do research and to advance specialty crops.

Secondly, this administration has done a pretty good job of encouraging in our school lunch program and some of our nutrition assistance program more purchases of fruits and vegetables, that California is well known for producing. We’ve also made sure that we’ve extended our conservation programs to many specialty crop growers, as well. We’ve actually targeted resources in the California Bay-Delta area when folks were faced with serious water issues. So there’s been a lot of work done.

On the issue of subsidies, the president has proposed, and many commodity groups have suggested, a change in the direct payment system, and that’s one way that we can get our fiscal house in order, by reducing those support structures and systems. At the same time, it is important for us to continue to have a safety net for our farm families because there are natural disasters that can occur, and have occurred this year in great numbers, and there are also market failures that occur from time to time.

Colony Collapse Disorder with bees has been particularly devastating here in California. Any thought about action about dealing with persistent pesticide compounds that are in some cases being bred into crops?
We continue to work on ensuring we’re doing adequate research, specifically addressing the issue of Colony Disorder, trying to figure out precisely what’s causing it and what we can do to make sure we have adequate pollinators for the benefit of those who absolutely need them. Secondly, just as a general proposition, one concern I have about recent discussions about budget reductions is that we are potentially risking inadequately funding our research component of agriculture. Agricultural research has been flat-lined over a period of years, and that may end up making it more difficult for us to address specific pests or diseases.

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