Vilsack’s Balancing Act

April 26, 2009 at 2:25 am Leave a comment

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made no secret of his sympathy for small farmers or his support for local food.

Within weeks of taking office, Vilsack took a jackhammer to the pavement outside the Ag Department building to make room for a People’s Garden, a 612-square-foot vegetable garden adjacent to the USDA’s Farmer’s Market.  Weeks later, he joined First Lady Michelle Obama and a group of 5th graders on the White House lawn to talk about the new White House vegetable garden and the bees to be released there this summer. 

There’s more.  In March, the USDA released $145 million in direct farm loans to more than 2,000 farmers to help them with the operating capital they needed to get their operations started.  Half of them were beginning farmers.  The department also plans to award $250 million in loan guarantees for local and regional food networks. Meanwhile, Vilsack recommended cutting subsidies to the nation’s largest farmers, which predictably wasn’t received well in Congress.

“Agriculture needs to understand that nothing stays static,” said Secretary Vilsack in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. 

While Vilsack would like to change the direction of agriculture, he is hampered by the entrenched interests of agribusiness.

“There’s a lot of pressure to keep the current system going,” said Frederick Kirschenmann, a fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a research and education center that advocates sustainable farming practices.    

However difficult, Vilsack is pushing back.  He is using his balancing skills, trying to nurture the early shoots of an emerging new system of farming, while attending to the needs of the prevailing one.  He’s no dreamer.  For all his support for small farmers, Vilsack is not about to abandon America’s largest growers, the producers of 75 percent of the food Americans consume. 

Carbon trading might help him strike a better balance between industrial and smaller-scale sustainable farming. Vilsack advocates a system of carbon payments for farmers who sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse emissions.  This would create income opportunities for small organic farmers, while persuading industrial farmers to reform their agricultural practices. 

He’s encouraging small farmers in other ways. The USDA plans to build roads, rails and wastewater and water treatment facilities in rural areas, creating new markets for small and medium-size farmers. Vilsack bemoans the fact that 60 percent of farms make less than $10,000 in sales.  He wants to create opportunities for small farmers to increase their revenues and production.

He’s not about staying small.  He made it clear in a speech in February that food production needs to increase to keep up with a growing world population. 

Vilsack is open to technology and genetically engineered food.  In March, he ordered the USDA to develop a comprehensive strategy for promoting the export of genetically engineered agricultural commodities.

Vilsack’s delicate balancing act will be interesting to watch.  Actually a “rebalancing act” is more like it, as he tries to feed and fatten sustainable agriculture to a point where it’s a counterweight to industrial farming.

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Entry filed under: US Food Policy.

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