Tom Vilsack campaigns for Joe Biden during a campaign e

Tom Vilsack speaks at a campaign event in Creston for Joe Biden in December of 2019. Eight days into his new role as Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack outlined his key priorities at a virtual Commodity Classic event earlier today. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Vilsack highlights USDA priorities

March 5, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Developing and expanding trade opportunities, climate change, and racial justice and equity top the list of priorities for the newly-confirmed U.S. ag secretary Tom Vilsack.

Just eight days into the job, Vilsack addressed a virtual audience for the 2021 Commodity Classic, the 25th anniversary of the largest farmer-led, farmer-focused educational and agricultural experience.

Trade matters

Vilsack says his four-year stint at the U.S. Dairy Export Council—in between his roles serving as U.S. ag secretary—have brought a deeper understanding of trade challenges and opportunities of which farmers and commodities can participate.

“If there’s one word to describe what we need to do at USDA, it’s markets,” Vilsack told Agri-Pulse TV earlier this week.

Vilsack said that means more markets for farmers, ranchers and producers. Better markets in terms of transparency and openness. New market opportunities like sequestering carbon and creating new revenue opportunities. Fair markets with a focus on equity.

He said CFAP-AA, or the third tranche in additional Coronavirus Food Assistance Program funding is currently under assessment to ensure equitable funding among farmers, ranchers and producers.

“We have to be really careful about evaluating what’s taken place, what needs to take place and making sure at the end of all of this we provide as much help to as many people who are in need as possible,” Vilsack said.

The former Mt. Pleasant mayor and two-term Iowa governor said it’s going to take some creative thinking to ensure that those who weren’t adequately compensated during prior CFAP payments will be. He referenced the biofuels industry as an example.

“Several members of Congress had mentioned that the biofuels industry has not necessarily been helped during the course of this period and they’ve obviously suffered significant losses especially with the (RFS) waivers,” he told Agri-Pulse TV. “The question is what can be done? There was an infrastructure program that was announced in the previous administration –a relatively restrictive structure. Can you loosen that up a little bit and use the resources that are currently unspent in that program which would provide some help and assistance in that industry?”

The end result, he said, is to get away from payments like CFAP and build markets that generate returns to farmers.

“Every farmer that I’ve ever talked to would much prefer to get a check from the market and not the government, and that’s the goal and hopefully this year we’ll take steps toward that goal,” he said.

Expanding marketing opportunities for U.S. ag products like soybeans is a shared goal of both Vilsack and the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). ISA directors say they look forward to working with Vilsack in several areas.

The relationship with China” “it’s complicated,” Vilsack says. Though China has been aggressive in its purchasing of U.S. ag products, including soybeans, Vilsack notes that the level of buying hasn’t dramatically increased in recent years. He pointed out that China bought nearly 25% of its ag purchases in 2017 from China; today, it’s about 15%.

However, he noted the commitments under the Phase one agreement as it relates to phytosanitary and sanitary restrictions, intellectual property, etc.

“I think there’s still work to be done, but we’re opening up markets and reducing barriers,” he said.

Reducing impact on climate

Vilsack said he supports investments in opportunities that have a ‘climate smart’ approach.

“We need to be investing , supporting and providing incentives and encouragement for farmers to embrace practices that they are already embracing—from cover crops to crop diversity to rotational grazing and other practices—that we know will have a positive impact on soil health and water quality,” Vilsack said.

He referenced the idea of carbon banking, which would offset emissions, capture carbon, and return money back to farmers.

“Today in America we have 135-138 million carbon credits outstanding in various markets. But the reality is only about 2.5 million of those are focused on agriculture because the systems are not designed to benefit farmers,” Vilsack said. “If we’re going to get into this business of incenting and providing revenue streams for carbon sequestration, we have to create, design and implement programs in a way that benefits farmers.”

He said farmers are going to provide some of the “early wins” in an effort on climate.

“We’re going to be focused at USDA in trying to figure out how best to structure a program that creates that new revenue stream, supports conservation programs that already exist to create new opportunities for farmers,” Vilsack said.

Support for biofuels

Vilsack said he was encouraged to see the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicate they would take an approach to waivers submitted under the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) as it was initially intended.

“The return to a day when waivers were very scarcely granted will provide greater flexibility, greater predictability for the renewable fuel industry, which in turn should help support that industry,” Vilsack said.

Increasing usage of biofuels, like biodiesel, is an immediate assistance to Iowa’s soybean farmers. A recent study from ABF Economics shows that biodiesel adds about 13% of value to the price of soybeans.

While it was widely reported that the Biden administration is focused solely on procuring electric vehicles in the government fleet, Vilsack said he’ll also look to vehicles which use biofuels like biodiesel to fulfill that need.

“If we’re truly interested in stretching the miles that we get out of our cars and out a gallon of gas, it’s going to be necessary for us to focus on octane,” Vilsack said. “And there’s only one way to get the high enough octane to get you to higher mileage standard and that’s through renewable fuels.”