Secretary of ag speaking at podium

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (File photo credit: Joseph L Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Vilsack shouts out soy-based asphalt, SAF during 2023 Ag Outlook

February 23, 2023 | Joseph Hopper

On the opening day of the 99th annual USDA Ag Outlook Forum, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained the stakes for farmers are higher than ever, calling the present a pivotal moment. The cure for the current times? We must think anew and act anew, Vilsack says.

“I think we can push back on what traditionally happens in industry in this country,” says Vilsack. “I think we can create a different, innovative, creative way to approach the future. That key strategy focuses on understanding that it's not just growing crops and selling them or raising livestock and selling them or the product from them, or government payments, we can be innovative and creative enough to create additional profit opportunities from farms small, midsized and large.”

Instead of having two or three ways to generate profit and income on the farm, Vilsack hoped for a future with five, six or seven.

“Each farm becomes a center of entrepreneurship,” Vilsack says. “We establish an agriculture commodity partnership initiative. All about sustainable agricultural practices that the market values and benefits, being able to tell their customers that what they're purchasing in terms of their food products have, in fact, been produced in a sustainable way.”

A bio-based economy

Vilsack explained the recent major investment in the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities and said the U.S. is investing in a bio-based economy to create from agricultural waste, chemicals, fabrics, fibers, food and energy.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invested in the bio-based economy, instructing us to invest resources on projects, for example, that turned soybeans into something that will repair roads more easily and less expensively by using soybeans and converting it into an asphalt-type product.

He added, “Think about this, the federal government has a bio-based preferred program. We run it at the USDA. We encourage federal agencies to think about purchasing bio-based products. There are 139 categories of bio-based products that are in our catalog. That's 139 areas and within each area, there are multiple products that are produced, that are bio-based. This is the opportunity for us to convert, to balance a fossil fuel-based economy with bio-based economy.”

The Secretary of Agriculture said there’s no better example of American agriculture being front and center in the bio-based economy than providing the feedstocks needed for Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

“The reality is, we kind of get electric vehicles. We understand that concept. You put a battery in a car and you get to travel and you charge it up every once in awhile. That concept doesn't work particularly well with airplanes. You know, the car runs out of charge, you can pull aside the road and call somebody.  If you're over a big ocean, how does that work? 

He continued, “We’re going to need 36 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel that can be produced from agricultural waste and from woody biomass. This is a whole new industry that hasn't existed. So bio-based products is a phenomenal opportunity and when we're speaking about fuel and energy, there's the opportunity for renewable energy production on the farm as a revenue source, to not only reduce the cost of operating the farm, but to allow that farm to put resources on the grid for other small businesses and other homes in rural areas.”

‘I think the outlook is bright’

Outlining the current efforts at work for Americans, whether schoolchildren in the lunch line or farmers in the field, Vilsack touted the Farm Bill reauthorization as an incredible opportunity for agriculture and rural America.

“It’s not just get big, it's diversify,” says Vilsack. “It's create multiple profit centers in your farming operation.”

The strengthening of rural America, Vilsack says, is important and critical to the American democracy. Rural America, Vilsack pointed out, disproportionately sends its sons and daughters into the military. Why? Vilsack’s answer was based on taking some life lessons from the farmers and ranchers who are part of those rural communities and are known for being good stewards of the land. The life lesson he said, was something basic about the land: you can’t keep taking from it without replenishing and nourishing it.

“Something that's valuable to you, needs to be invested in,” says Vilsack. “These kids grow up and intuitively know that in a country that allows us to have the freedom to dream, what a great country that is. These kids understand that and they say to themselves, something that gives so much to me and my family and to my community, I gotta give something back. We want that value system to be alive and well and flourishing in this country. Especially now at a time of division. 

“So, folks, this isn't just about farmers and ranchers, it's not just about income, it's not just about opportunity or entrepreneurship, all of that is important. It's not just about jobs. It's about the essence of this country. That's why I'm excited about the future. That's why I think the outlook is bright, is hopeful, is optimistic. I get it, I know there are challenges out there, I absolutely understand. I'm out there, I'm talking to farmers, I understand and appreciate, but I also know that if we do this right, if we continue to invest in these multiple opportunities for farmers to profit, then, whether you're large or small or mid-sized, whatever your community is, you'll be able to provide something to your country and I know that farmers want to hear that.

“This is an exciting time, this is a time of great opportunity. A time of significant opportunities in my view. So, for me, the seeds of innovation are all about creating these new opportunities. The opportunity for growth is all about these opportunities. And I ask all of you to join us in making this happen. Because our farmers need it. And our country depends on it.”