Vilsack Proposes Changes To Farming
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Shortly after becoming the Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack stepped outside his department's headquarters building here in Washington. He took a jackhammer to a driveway, and now that the weather is getting warmer, his department plans to put a garden there. It was one small step for the man whose job is to remake Americans' approach to agriculture. The former Iowa governor argues that almost everything farmers do can affect what we eat, the energy we use, even our chances to fight global warming.
Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): What they use in their farm equipment, what they plant, where they plant it, when they plant it, how they fertilize it, how they cultivate it, what they do once it's harvested, if they have livestock, what do they feed that livestock. There is also what happens underneath the ground.
INSKEEP: Vilsack's agenda to change much of that is not entirely welcome. President Obama's administration faces criticism for its plan to reduce subsidies to larger farms. Yet when we sat down with the secretary he argued in favor of the concept of farm subsidies.
Secretary VILSACK: The notion of subsidies is a complex one. We have in place support structures and safety nets that allow farmers to ride out difficult times. So the challenge is to figure out a way in which you can continue to have reasonably priced food and at the same time prosperous farmers. And that's where I think energy and climate change comes back into play because you can foresee a future in which farmers are paid for reducing our carbon footprint much in the same way that we're currently paying them for conservation. We're concerned about water quality, we're concerned about preserving the soil, and so we're willing to pay people to do things on their land that would be helpful not just to them but to us.
INSKEEP: Are you saying you would want may be someday to pay farmers for doing fertilizer-free farming or for putting up a windmill that generates electricity in a renewable way, that sort of thing?
Secretary VILSACK: Well, I mean there are whole host of things, but I think it will be tied to the whole notion of offsets.
INSKEEP: Somewhere there's a dirty coal-fired power plant that's polluting too much. And under this system you would envision the plant might pay a farmer to be storing carbon or to be doing something that's cleaner, and the farmer would end up making money that way.
Secretary VILSACK: It's that or there is some kind of a central distribution system that basically sells these offsets and contracts with the farmers. The structure is essentially as you've outlined. Eventually the farmer gets benefited for doing what is right for the country as a whole and for the globe as a whole, which is to reduce the carbon footprint.
INSKEEP: I was very interested a moment ago to hear you speak in favor of the concept of agricultural subsidies, given that some of the largest headlines you've made since becoming secretary were for announcing or proposing a reduction.
Secretary VILSACK: Well, what we're suggesting is that that safety net is there for the farmers who need it. And I think we're also confronted with trillion dollar deficits. You have to deal with the deficit. And it's all well and good for us now to invest substantial sums of money into the economy, to have agriculture working for Americans to get back to work, but at some point in time we're going to have to deal with trillion dollar deficits.
INSKEEP: I was thinking about that, though. You're getting a big political backlash for this. And when you look at the numbers, I mean you can save a few billion dollars over a few years, which is a lot of money, but in the context of the trillions that people now discuss, it doesn't seem like a huge payoff. Are you concerned that you're going to invest too much political capital for a small payoff?
Secretary VILSACK: Well, you're going to - you have to start that conversation somewhere, and there are many different twists and turns that can take place. Bottom line is, the safety net has to work for people who need it. Bottom line is, we have a deficit that has to be addressed in some way. And bottom line is that agriculture generally has to be open to change, and I think climate change and energy provide that opportunity.
INSKEEP: Are you saying there's a much larger goal here than just saving a couple billion dollars? You want to remake agriculture?
Secretary VILSACK: I think agriculture needs to understand that nothing stays static. If you think that it does, just ask the folks at General Motors or General Electric or the banking industry. I mean there's constant change and I think there's tremendous opportunity: Americans more aware of what they're eating, terrific opportunity to expand these small growers.
We ought to be about encouraging our kids to be just terrific consumers of food. They ought to want different colored fruits and vegetables on their plate. They ought to demand it. They ought to be encouraged to do that. A tremendous opportunity for us in this energy and climate change discussion. It's change and change is always difficult.
INSKEEP: Secretary Vilsack, thanks very much.
Secretary VILSACK: You bet, thank you.
INSKEEP: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke with us in Washington.