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USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

posted on April 4, 2014

Agricultural updating.  There's new legislation governing how this nation produces and distributes food, fuel and fiber.  U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack leads his department's rule writing.  A conversation with Tom Vilsack on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: As President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack is deeply entrenched in Washington, D.C. politics.  It was a major partisan struggle getting new farm legislation for producing food and distributing some of it to those needing food assistance.  Secretary Vilsack is also chairing the first ever White House Rural Council for Strengthening Rural Businesses and he is also partnering with First Lady Michelle Obama's push for improving children's health and nutrition.  Mr. Vilsack says he is enjoying the job but as the Obama administration closes in on its final couple of years now, people are wondering what is next for the former Iowa governor.  Perhaps he'll fill us in.  Welcome back to Iowa Press.

Vilsack: It's good to be back.

Borg: You're anticipating the question.

Vilsack: Yes.

Borg: The people across the table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, you know Secretary Vilsack and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Secretary, let's talk about the economy, the ag economy.  You have said that it has been one of the bright spots as the county went through recession.  Is it headed for a downturn?  Corn prices slumping and then you have this horrible pork virus that is hurting the swine industry.

Vilsack: Okay, I think the ag economy is still strong.  We had a record year last year in income.  This year is going to be slightly less than the record but still way above the ten year average for income.  We are continuing to see very strong exports, looking at potentially another record year in exports, record highs in beef, poultry and pork exports.  Corn prices have come down but it also has increased the export of corn.  We have seen a volume increase of corn and soybeans about 40%.  So I am very confident that we are looking at still a very, very strong, solid ag economy.  There are challenges no question and you have mentioned the pig virus, which is a big, big deal and a concern for all of us, and we are really focused on trying to provide producers with the best information on how to minimize the losses. We're working through our Ames laboratory and trying to figure out how we might be able to create a vaccine for this. But obviously it is worrisome.

Henderson: How close is the vaccine?

Vilsack: Well, it could happen any day or it could be quite a while, quite a ways away.  This is a virus that started in Europe and China, it's been around for quite some time.  It came to the U.S., it spread very quickly. We think we have some best practices in terms of mitigating the consequences but we haven't quite figured out what causes it or how to stop it.

Lynch: Dean referred to your future plans, but let's take a look back at your eight years as governor of Iowa in terms of what we're listening to at the Statehouse this week, allegations that there was hush money paid to state employees to essentially go away and keep their mouth shut.  And revelations are that this extends back, as least as far back as your administration.  Governor Branstad has said he was unaware of these settlements, these confidential settlements.  Were you unaware of settlements?  Did you approve of these settlements?

Vilsack: First of all, James, I'm not sure that they actually occurred during my administration.  The folks who I trust to know about this have indicated that they were unaware of any such settlements.  So it may very well be that there were but I'm not convinced yet that they are.  I think there are three issues here.  First of all, were there secret settlements?  Secondly, if there were secret settlements, why was money paid?  Was it paid actually to keep people quiet?  And third, if it was paid to keep people quiet, why were people paid to be quiet?  I can tell you that there was no money paid in my administration to keep anyone quiet.  And I can tell you also that there was no reason for people to keep settlements secret in terms of removing people because of political concerns as opposed to bonafide reasons.  So I think there are a lot of questions obviously that are going to be answered and I'm happy to take a look at the files that folks claim were secret settlements in my administration.  It's not something that I was aware of and it's something that our folks are not aware of.

Lynch: Just to be clear, you're not aware of any secret settlements or there were no secret settlements?

Vilsack: Well, I'm not convinced that there were secret settlements.  Now, some have suggested that there were and we'd be happy to take a look at the files.  It's an interesting question because there may be circumstances, depending upon how you define employee, state employee, there may have been circumstances, litigation may have been settled and confidentiality may have been requested by a plaintiff in a case against the state.  It could have been a malpractice case involving the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.  I just don't know.  We'd have to see the files that people claim are secret settlements.  But at this point the folks that I have asked about this have indicated that they were not aware of such.

Lynch: Is it a good use of state time and resources to go back and sort through these 45 boxes the Department of Administrative Services has referred to?

Vilsack: I think the focus needs to be on the future in terms of -- I think Governor Branstad made the right call in basically saying no more of this. I think the question still remains why did it occur?  And whether or not there has been any erosion of the merit system, which obviously I think is an important consideration for the public in terms of who works for state government.  I can tell you when I became governor some democrats were not very happy with me because I kept a number of high profile republican appointees in my administration and I did it in order to convey a sense that we weren't going to be focused on politics, we were going to be focused on the merits and the work the folks were going to do for the state of Iowa.  And I was well served by people like Ted Stillwell and Alan Gordon, for example.

Borg: You said let's look to the future and I want to do that.  We have an election coming up.  Recently democratic Congressman Bruce Braley made some comments to Texas Lawyers Association and he was questioning at that point in his comments whether a farmer, Senator Chuck Grassley, the prospect of whether or not a farmer is the proper person potentially to be the future chair of the Senate's Judiciary Committee.  What did you think when you heard those comments?

Vilsack: Well, I think Congressman Braley has hit the nail on the head when he said sometimes people say things they regret and I'm sure he regrets it.  I think it was appropriate for him to go to Senator Grassley and apologize personally.  Obviously I have profound respect for both Congressman Braley and Senator Grassley and I think Senator Grassley's career in the Senate obviously makes him qualified to serve in any capacity on any committee in the Senate.  And I think obviously the focus of this election needs to be on what the next senator in the United States Senate is going to be able to do for working families here in this state, how is that individual going to be able to improve the lives of Iowans and to make sure that America remains strong overseas and that we have a political system that respects and represents the values that are important I think to Iowans.  That is really what this election should be about.

Henderson: The Iowa House this past week passed a resolution calling for the repeal of a California law that deals with the production of eggs.  In other words, the space in which the hens are kept in the houses for laying the eggs.  What, in your view, is the proper role of the federal government in dealing with this California law?

Vilsack: Well, at this point in time I was in favor of the agreement that had been worked out between the egg producers and the Humane Society that would have resulted in the passage of federal legislation that would have created a single federal standard.  For whatever reason there was not sufficient support for that in the Congress, which I think is unfortunate.  That seems to me to be the kind of thing that we ought to be encouraging.  We ought to be encouraging folks working together, collaborating, reaching common ground and consensus.  I think what we're dealing with now is battles between states, producers versus consumers, and I think it is unfortunate, it is divisive, there's too much of that already in American politics and political discussion today, from my perspective.  So I think we should be looking for the collaborative solution.

Henderson: This law goes into effect in 2015.  One out of every five eggs produced in the U.S. comes from Iowa.  What happens if nothing occurs between now and then?

Vilsack: Well, I think there's obviously litigation and I think we're going to have to wait and see what the courts ultimately decide and how they might be able to work through this.  I think eventually we're going to get to a point where we're going to get back to where the Humane Society and the egg producers were.  I think the reason why that was not supported was because other producers in the country were concerned that it might extend to their production processes and I think that was not necessarily a well-founded concern. I think this is a pretty isolated circumstance where people sat down and worked things out.  It's unfortunate it didn't get worked out.

Lynch: Another federal agency, the FDA, is talking about a rule that would regulate spent grain from distilleries and ethanol production, much of which now is fed to livestock.  And the distilleries and the ethanol producers say this could become very costly if they have to treat it in a special way, package it in a special way or haul it to landfills.  Do you see that rule going anywhere? And has the USDA weighed in on the merits?

Vilsack: This has done something that we have spent a good deal of time on.  We have been focusing on a number of other things with the FDA, including the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which is a huge responsibility they have and we're trying to help and assist in this.  I think the challenge will be -- the question will be whether or not there is a public safety risk.  Obviously the FDA has to make that call.  And the question is whether or not what they're asking producers and breweries to do is reasonable and balanced.  And obviously there is a regulatory process that we go through.  There will be comments.  There will be an opportunity to opine about whether or not this is a good rule or a bad rule and eventually things get worked out.

Lynch: But this is part of that Food Safety Modernization Act, isn't it?

Vilsack: Well, it is a -- our primary focus is basically on the way in which foods are being produced, fruits and vegetables are being produced, the concern that producers have about water usage, about manure, about the handling of fruits and vegetables.  That is where our focus has been.  It's a very significant rule.  We were working and have been working with the FDA in terms of outreach.  We have been working with them and encouraging them to basically make sure that they are right about things before they launch them.  The fact that they pulled some of the rules back for reconsideration I think is reflective of the concerns that we have been expressing to them.  And I think that they are generally following the right path.

Henderson: Another federal agency, the EPA, has come under fire this week from farm groups.  The American Farm Bureau Federation complaining about the prospect of regulating ditches.  It's a rule that would regulate -- you're shaking your head --

Vilsack: No, I'm shaking my head because that is part of the challenge of the job I have.  We have gone about 15 minutes into this show and we have yet to actually talk about the Department of Agriculture's activities.  But we have worked with the EPA on the Clean Water Act and what we did was ensure that in this act, first and foremost, the exemptions for normal farming activities continue.  That can't be underemphasized in this discussion. Normal farming activities are not subject to the Clean Water Act.  Secondly, we asked the EPA to make sure that they didn't do anything to make more difficult the regulations on ditches, on tile drainage, on lagoons, on storm water ponds, on artificial ponds that are created for some production processes like rice.  They were happy to do that. And then finally, finally they listed 56 specific conservation activities for which there is no notification or permitting required.  This is a new effort on the part of EPA to be quite specific about what is and what is not regulated in the Clean Water Act.  So, I think we have still conversation to work through and I think it is very easy for people to get stirred up about a regulation.  If they really read the regulation, if they really spend some time thinking about it I think what they're going to find is that this is a significant improvement over what we had before.

Borg: I promise you that we are going to get to USDA and how it applies to Iowa farmers.  But there is a related question that comes out of that and I'd like to play just a piece of tape here to introduce that.  You were on Capitol Hill recently testifying before a House Appropriations Subcommittee.  And Iowa's third district republican Congressman Tom Latham, a member of that subcommittee, used the committee proceedings as a forum to voice, Secretary Vilsack, what he claims are concerns about whether USDA really represents their interests in some of its actions and advocacy.  And we'll play that tape.

Market to Market - Secretary Vilsack - March 14, 2014: I'm happy to visit with those farmers who expressed disappointment to you.  That's not what I hear and so obviously we must be talking a different group.

Market to Market - Congressman Latham - March 14, 2014: I think we're probably talking the same people.

Market to Market - Secretary Vilsack - March 14, 2014: I don't think we are, Congressman.  With all due respect, I don't think we are.

Market to Market - Congressman Latham - March 14, 2014: Well, I know what I know and it is very disheartening to me to see the change in the relationship.  There is an absolute feeling out in the country that the department sides more with EPA, takes the orders from above and are not advocating for farmers and --

Market to Market - Secretary Vilsack - March 14, 2014: That's just not true. That's just not true.

Lynch: Congressman Latham said that the USDA is not on their side, farmers' side.  And as we have talked about FDA rules, EPA rules, there seems to be some sort of a basis, whether it is well grounded or not, that farmers may look at all these rules and say hey, who's standing up for us?  What is the USDA's role in all of this?  Are you on farmers' side?

Vilsack: Well, first of all, I wish Congressman Latham had been in the hearing yesterday that I had two hours and 45 minutes.  I think he would have seen a much different attitude expressed by members of his caucus and members of the democratic caucus in terms of our work, especially on getting a farm bill passed.  And if farmers needed something above all else they needed certainty in terms of farm policy and we certainly played an important role in getting that farm bill passed and it is a solid and good bill for farmers.  There's no question about that.  Secondly, back to Kay's first question about the economy, this is the best agricultural economy we have experienced probably in my lifetime, maybe in the history of the country, certainly record exports, record enrollment in conservation, record farm loans, record activity in terms of USDA's assistance in helping to expand local and regional food markets and the biobased economy.  So there is very little area of complaint.  Now, we do weigh in, we do visit with our sister agencies about various rules and regulations and I will tell you that the Clean Water Act is a good example of the work that we did.  Before there were not 56 specific designated conservation practices that are now on record, the EPA on record is saying you don't have to get a permit, you don't have to notify the Corp of Engineers or the EPA.  That is a solid step forward.  We have worked with the FDA on the Food Safety Modernization Act to make sure that they understood the impact it would have on producers and they have listened, they have drawn rules back, they have modified rules from their initial position because of the work that we do.  So I don't think there's any question that we're on the side of farmers, ranchers and producers and all of America that depends on agriculture.  One out of every 12 jobs in this country is linked to agriculture so we take our job very seriously.

Lynch: Is it your role and the USDA's role to be the farmers' champion?

Vilsack: Well, it's our role to make sure that we advocate for all of rural America, it's not just agriculture.  There are 50 million people who live in rural America and that is primarily our responsibility, it's why I'm the chair of the rural council, it is why we worked very hard to get a solid farm bill that not only focuses on producers but also on rural America because as good as the agricultural economy is we are still struggling in rural America and there is work that needs to be done.

Henderson: You referenced your testimony on Capitol Hill.  You were talking with Congress in part about Farm Service Agency offices. There is reference to it in the farm bill.  Should farmers expect closures of their local offices or a different way of interacting with the agency in the years ahead?

Vilsack: Well, I think we need to modernize our system.  And there are a couple of reasons for that.  Number one, we have 20% fewer workers than we did several years ago.  The budget that I'm working with at USDA is now a billion dollars less than it was when I became secretary in terms of the operating budget.  So a 20% reduction in workforce, you obviously have to realign where folks work and what they do.  Secondly, we're instituting new technologies that will over time allow producers, first and foremost, not to have to go to multiple offices to access their records.  And secondly, eventually, if they have access to broadband, they'll be able to access their records from home.  That will change the relationship that they have with FSA offices.  So we also have 30 offices today that have no full-time employees.  We have a number of offices, over 100 offices that have one full-time employee and if that employee is sick or that employee's child is playing in the state track championship or the state basketball championship you want that person to be able to experience that opportunity to be there for their child.  So who is going to be in the office?  So what we're suggesting is over time fewer offices but better offices.  And we're doing right now a work study to try to determine exactly where the work is being done to make sure that we have adequate people doing the work that needs to be done.  And then in 2015 we will probably suggest a realignment of some of the offices and a strengthening of those offices with additional investments.  So we want better offices and we want the FSA office not just simply to do the farm programs but also to begin acting as counselors and advisors of producers that are looking for new alternative revenue sources.  They may be interested in a local, regional food system so they may need to know about rural development's programs, the agricultural marketing service programs.  They may be interested in conservation and ecosystem market which is a new income opportunity that we're helping to create at USDA.  They may want to know more about that and FSA can help link them up with NRCS and if there is a general understanding of all USDA programs they can really provide a good, one-stop shop for information.

Borg: I want to talk about this crop year.  Just in the past few days USDA said that corn plantings may be a little less this year, soybean plantings may be up.  Given that the corn supply is relatively tight across the entire world, do you think that the projected now harvest, given adequate weather, is going to be sufficient for export and domestic needs?

Vilsack: I think so, Dean.  Even when we had the drought in 2012 we had the 8th largest corn crop in the history of the country.  And it is the technology that is being embraced by producers today that we're helping to advance into the field more quickly under this administration that is helping to deal with adverse weather conditions.  So I'm not concerned about supplies and I think the fact that prices are where they are is reflective that the market is not concerned about supplies.

Borg: Jim?

Lynch: One of the areas you have talked about recently is climate change and how it affects farmers and you have set up these climate hubs including one in Ames where people are doing research.  And if I understand it correctly they are not only researchers but they're going to be going out sort of like the extension service and talking with farmers, helping them deal with longer growing seasons, drought, those sorts of things. You're also headlining a conference at Drake later this year, later this month, on climate change.  It suggests that the action is going to be at the state level, not at the federal level.  Is that where you see laws and regulations changing in response to climate change?

Vilsack: I think actually it's going to be at every level.  And the private sector obviously has a very significant role here.  Our job I think at USDA is to make sure that farmers are equipped with the best and latest information so that they can do whatever they need to do to mitigate and to adapt.  I think what we're seeing is farmers being willing to do that.  I think they're very interested in new opportunities.  There is an expanded growing season, there is an opportunity for double cropping, there's an opportunity for cover crops, there's an opportunity to look at ways in which we use irrigation more efficiently, there are new forage opportunities that are being created that will make it easier for cattle operations, for example, to stay in business even when there's droughts.  So there's an information gathering and an information providing responsibility that we have at the federal level.

Lynch: Do you think farmers understand those changes and are adapting to them now?

Vilsack: I think farmers probably better understand the intricacies of weather -- they see it on the ground, they see it every single day, they know that things are changing, that growing seasons are changing, they know that droughts are longer and more impactful.  The folks in the western part of the United States are currently seeing this in a very significant way with long-term drought. 

Borg: We have been looking back through our archives -- you wished us a happy birthday before we actually started this program and it is Iowa Public Television's 45th anniversary -- and in doing so we have been looking back through the archives and we found your first appearance on Iowa Press.

Vilsack: We don't have to watch that.

Borg: It was on February 23rd, 1986 and you were representing at that time the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association and the program topic at that time was medical malpractice.  Let's take a look at that.

Iowa Press - February 23, 1986 - Tom Vilsack: I think it's important for everyone to understand that the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association is not simply against what the physicians are proposing.  What we are suggesting is, as the insurance commissioner suggested this week and as the attorney general also suggested, that these matters are of such grave importance and involved not only the medical community and legal community but all facets of society, that the legislature commission a study.  The Iowa Bar Association is willing to put $100,000 to fund that study to get all the facts on the table, to eliminate the assumptions and to examine closely whether or not we have in fact in this state a problem.  To date the medical society and others have fought against that concept.

Borg: Well, I don't know whether to ask your impressions -- but this does lead into things evolve, you've gone on to be Governor, now Secretary of Agriculture.  What is ahead for Secretary Vilsack?

Vilsack: Dean, I honestly don't know the answer to that question.  One of the great things about my life is that I have never actually planned any of this in a sense that things have just kind of happened.  I think you open yourself to options and opportunities and they just come if you do a good job at what you're doing.  So the focus now is making sure I do the best job at being Secretary of Agriculture and I love my job, I love the people I'm working with and I love the people I'm working for.  So right now it is focusing on the job I've got.

Borg: And there will be a career after secretary, won't there?

Vilsack: Well, I hope so.  I've got a new definition of optimism.  I've got a 30 year mortgage on a house I bought in Iowa so I'm going to have to have something to do.

Lynch: Given the difficulties Senator Harkin went through with trying to set up the Harkin Institute and repository for his papers, have you given any thought to what you want to do with your papers as Governor and as Secretary of Agriculture, whether perhaps you and your papers will wind up at Drake?

Vilsack: I have not given that much thought.  When I left the governorship I think we provided the Historical Society -- I'm not even quite sure where they are right now.  Some of them are actually in a storage facility down in Mount Pleasant.  There were 27 boxes I had to put together for being vetted when John Kerry was considering the vice presidency and those 27 boxes are still down in a storage facility.  So they're all over the place.  And I think that people would be amazed at the papers today, most of what I do I do on a 3x5 card now.  I have just -- I carry these cards around and that is the extent of my papers.

Henderson: Would you have aspirations to work in education?  Drake University is going to have an opening for president.

Vilsack: Well, I will tell you that I had an enormously compelling experience at Harvard when I was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics between the governorship and being secretary.  I really enjoyed working with those young people.  And so in response to Dean's question, not necessarily in response to yours, but if there is a opportunity for me to work with young people I'd love to do that because I recently got a quote from my son Doug and it was a quote -- I actually used it at the Borlaug Statue unveiling -- about once you have climbed to the top you sort of know what the vista is, you know what the vision is and there is a responsibility I think to make sure that the next generation is inspired to climb up to that summit or that peak.  And I have had just extraordinary experience in politics.  And we want young people to have those same type of experiences in the future.

Henderson: Would Hillary Clinton be an inspiring candidate?  And will you support her in any way you can?

Vilsack: Well, first and foremost, Secretary Clinton has got to make the decision to run for president, which is obviously a very serious decision she has to make.  Obviously I have profound admiration for her and was supportive of her efforts in 2008.  I think it's a bit early to make predictions and a bit early to say what you're going to do but I will tell you this, I am confident that if Secretary Clinton decides to run for president and if the people of this country give her the opportunity to be president she will be a great president.

Borg: Secretary Vilsack, thanks for making time for us today.

Vilsack: You bet. 

Borg: It's good to have you back on the program.

Vilsack: It's nice to be back.

Borg: And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, usual times 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: agriculture Agriculture Secretary government Iowa news politics Tom Vilsack USDA