Farm Food Facts

A Conversation with Former Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack

July 21, 2020 USFRA Episode 85
Farm Food Facts
A Conversation with Former Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack
Chapters
Farm Food Facts
A Conversation with Former Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack
Jul 21, 2020 Episode 85
USFRA

Each week we explore the issues and trends that agriculture faces through frank and honest conversations with thought leaders across our nation. 

And who better to discuss this than the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in President Barack Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2017, Tom Vilsack - along with the CEO of US Farmers and Ranchers in Action, Erin Fitzgerald. 

Secretary Vilsack is no stranger to serving our country. He began his political career as mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, then on to the state Senate and then as Governor of Iowa for two terms.  

As leader of USDA Vilsack worked to strengthen the American agriculture economy and create new markets for America’s farmers, ranchers and growers, provided food assistance to millions of Americans, carried out unprecedented conservation efforts, made record investments in our rural communites and led the efforts to provide a safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply. 

Sec. Vilsack now serves as the CEO of the US Dairy Export Council the non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, proprietary processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.

Show Notes Transcript

Each week we explore the issues and trends that agriculture faces through frank and honest conversations with thought leaders across our nation. 

And who better to discuss this than the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in President Barack Obama’s administration from 2009 to 2017, Tom Vilsack - along with the CEO of US Farmers and Ranchers in Action, Erin Fitzgerald. 

Secretary Vilsack is no stranger to serving our country. He began his political career as mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, then on to the state Senate and then as Governor of Iowa for two terms.  

As leader of USDA Vilsack worked to strengthen the American agriculture economy and create new markets for America’s farmers, ranchers and growers, provided food assistance to millions of Americans, carried out unprecedented conservation efforts, made record investments in our rural communites and led the efforts to provide a safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply. 

Sec. Vilsack now serves as the CEO of the US Dairy Export Council the non-profit, independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of U.S. dairy producers, proprietary processors and cooperatives, ingredient suppliers and export traders.

Phil:

Welcome to the U S Farmers and Ranchers in Action weekly video podcast, Farm Food Facts. I'm your host, Phil Lempert. Each week we explore the issues and the trends that agriculture faces through frank and honest conversations with thought leaders across our nation. And who better to discuss this in the U S secretary of agriculture in president Barack Obama's administration from 2009 to 2017, Tom Vilsack along with the CEO of US Farmers and Ranchers in Action,Erin Fitzgerald. Secretary Vilsack is no stranger to serving our country. He began his political career as mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, then onto the State Senate, and then as governor of Iowa, for two terms, as leader of USDA, Vilsack w orked to strengthen the American agriculture economy and create new markets for America's farmers, ranchers and growers provided food assistance to millions of Americans carried out on press a mended conservation efforts made record investments in our rural communities and led the effort to provide a safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply. Secretary Vilsack now serves as the CEO of the U S dairy export council, the nonprofit independent membership organization that represents the global trade interests of us, dairy producers, proprietary processors, and cooperatives, ingredients, suppliers, and export traders. He's also the only person that I know of who has ever won the Powerball lottery in February of this year, when he told the Des Moines register that he plays, because he knows it continues to support schools and other educational needs and infrastructure. He also waited. He knew full well, and he was never going to win. Secretary Vilsack, welcome to Farm Food Facts.

Tom:

Thanks. It's good to be with you today.

Phil:

Erin, let's get started.

Erin:

Secretary Vilsack, thank you so much for being here and with our new name, change U S farmers and ranchers. We try to recognize leaders in action. So we're so excited that you are here with us today in the face of so many challenges that our farmers are facing. What is one word that you would use to describe or define farmers ranchers and why?

Tom:

ErinI would say resilient , uh, the ability of our farmers to basically , uh, deal with , uh , trade disruptions that obviously impacted and affected markets , uh , over the course of the last several years and at the same time , uh , deal with the pandemic that completely disrupted the food supply chain. Uh, our farmers were able to maintain a positive, hopeful attitude, recognizing that they have an important role in society to provide the food that feeds our families and that they continue to do so with a great deal of heart and passion. These are folks who every single day I go out there recognizing they're not only feeding people in this country, but really feeding people all over the world. Uh, and without us agriculture , uh, we would see obviously a significantly greater number of people who are food insecure, both here in this country and around the world. Uh , I say resilient because as soon as the crisis hit, the pandemic hit , farmers were trying to figure out a way in which they can redirect their resources from the food service industry that was shut down to food banks , uh, understanding and appreciating the fact that there were many struggling families. These are folks who have gone through some very difficult times and they understand and appreciate , uh , difficulty financial difficulty and challenges. And so their heart went out to families that were struggling and found themselves suddenly unemployed. So I would say resilient, I can think of a lot of other words , uh , um, but I think that's a good word for this time , uh , as we face the pandemic.

Phil:

So Mr. Secretary, you know , you talked about , uh, during the pandemic , um, a lot of farmers working with food banks. We've also seen now a lot of retailers working directly with farmers, whether it be dairy farmers, whether it's different crop farmers, do you think that post , uh , COVID-19, we're going to see that relationship , uh, blossom and nurture, and we're going to have more of a direct connection between farmers and ranchers and retailers.

Tom:

You know, I think it's , It's important for us too , to figure out the opportunity side of this terrible horrific pandemic that we're suffering through. Uh , how do we make it better? How do we create a better system from lessons learned as a result of pandemic? And I think one of those lessons is that we , we need to look at supply chains. We need to look at lengthy supply chains and figuring out ways in which we might be able to short shorten them, or certainly ways in which we can , uh , sort of re redirect resources in the event. We are faced with another pandemic at some point in time, the future. And I think the reality is that retailers will find a great interest on the part of farmers to be able to deal with them directly. This is very consistent with the efforts that have been underway for some time, at least when I was secretary, where we were trying to create local and regional food systems to give farmers alternative market opportunities, the ability to negotiate prices not necessarily be totally dependent on a global commodity trading system, but actually have some say in what is being sold and where it's being sold and how much you're able to get forward. So I think this would be a positive development for farmers for co-ops. And I would hope that retailers large scale and even small scale retailers would consider this option in the future.

Phil:

One of the things that we've heard from retailers, especially the smaller independent retailers is they really didn't have a lot of supply chain problems because they've been working directly with, you know, local farmers, local ranchers. Um , so there's a lot of credibility to what you're saying for the future that we build this relationship. Um , let's switch gears for a second to climate change , uh , which I know is one of your passions , um, what should farmers, what farmers doing and what should farmers be doing to mitigate climate change?

Tom:

Well, I think first of all, we have to recognize all of us have to recognize the work and farmers are doing a commitment that they're making to more sustainable practices. You mentioned earlier in the introduction that I currently work in the dairy industry. And one of the things that I've learned in my travels around the world is how important this issue of sustainability is to customers everywhere, not just in the United States, but markets, foreign markets, people are more and more interested in knowing where their food comes from, how it's being produced. And I think it's a market imperative that American farmers are able to step up and talk a little bit about, more about what they do on sustainability side. I'll use dairy as an example, our dairy farmers in North America are the only dairy farmers in the world that actually reduced their greenhouse gas emissions from production. If you take a look at the statistics, these dairy farmers are producing a tremendous amount of milk on less land, less water and less inputs than , than 10 years ago. 20 years ago, 30 years ago, tremendously productive and very sustainably done. Uh , I think farmers have made a commitment to land conservation. They certainly understand the importance of improving the quality and the soil health. There's I think a growing effort among farmers to figure out ways in which soil health can be improved. What's missing from this, I think is a partnership, a partnership with government and a partnership with the private sector, a partnership with NGOs and foundations who are also interested in mitigating and adapting to a changing climate that these farmers can't do this on their own, nor should they be asked to do it on their own. It's already financially difficult to farm. Uh , and we can't expect farmers to incur additional expense unless we as a society step up and provide assistance and help creating new market opportunities for these farmers as they become better stewards and developing ecosystem service markets, where they are paid for certain land conservation practices, they're paid for certain water quality preservation practices they're paid , uh, for , uh , opportunities to improve soil health , uh , at the same time, creating new market opportunities. So as we produce agricultural products and waste associated with those products, we'd redirect the waste into a variety of manufacturing, bio-based manufacturing opportunities, creating additional markets so that the farmers no longer become simply the sellers of commodities, but they have a multiple screens revenue streams, so that if there's a trade disruption or there's a pandemic, they still have additional revenue streams based on the environmental services that they're providing to society.

Erin:

So what I want to follow up on the ecosystem services and other environmental attributes. Now , one of the things that we see quite a bit is that the consumer doesn't always necessarily understand all the different impacts that farmers are providing society. And if you think about COVID, it was the first time that many of our consumers were really focused on the plate , right? They were taking solace and what was happening , um, and really understand the impact of the farm. Do you think that this is an opportunity to reinforce , um , some of the interconnectedness of what's happening on your plate in your community and the planet is also definitely connected to the farm?

Tom:

Well, not only is it an opportunity, but I think it's imperative that we do this. I think it's imperative that certainly in agriculture that we continue to speak. When I was secretary, I used to say, farmers do a great job talking to each other. Uh , they really need to talk to the other 99.9% of the country that doesn't farm. So that folks do understand, appreciate what they have. And we often tied it into national security. People looked at me a little bit strangely when I talk that way. But the reality is we're a food secure nation, despite what has happened in this pandemic. Uh , it wasn't because we didn't have enough food. It was because there was a disruption of supply chains, but we can deal with that. We're growing enough food, we're growing enough food for ourselves and for , and for , uh , many, many other people around the world. We're very few countries in the world actually can produce enough food to feed their own people. They're very dependent on other countries. China is a , is a good example. China cannot and will not certainly in my lifetime be able to feed its own people. So they are insecure in that respect. We are, we are secure in that respect and I think we need to continue to reinforce this message of the, of the tremendous contribution that American farmers and the security that they provide , uh, gives to, to us, to the freedoms and liberties that we enjoy here in this country. Um , in addition, these are also farm families that oftentimes , uh , allow their sons and daughters to go into military service and disproportion numbers . So in addition to feeding us, they also defend us. And so it's, I think it's an opportunity, not just for farms, but also for rural America to convey a message of its importance to the rest of the country. Um , and at this time when we're looking for , uh , ways in which we can come together , uh, I think many of us are tired of the divisions that we've seen in this country. This is an opportunity to link rural, urban, suburban America together as a single country, recognizing and appreciating the folks on the front lines. Not only are we going to appreciate those nurses, doctors, and emergency technicians who are working on the front lines of this pandemic, but the farmers, the guys who work in the grocery stores, the people that are getting our food, trucking, our food, getting our foods so we can purchase it. Those people are also on the front lines. They've also risked their lives. If you will, to make sure that our families are fed. So it's time that we express a bit more appreciation for what our farmers or ranchers and those connecting food service industry do. Then I would say this era , I'd say one of the things I think this is an opportunity for us to undertake, to explain to people that it's not just food. It's not just agriculture, it's a combination, the food industry and farming, they aren't separate industries. They are one , one in the same. And when you start talking about food and agriculture, you're talking about, I don't know , 25 to 30% of the American workforce impacted , affected by it, by what farmers do and what the food industry does. 20% of the economy. Did we see that? We sure did a lot of the 20 to 30 million people unemployed during this pandemic. Where did they come from? They came from food service. They came from meat , packing facilities and processing facilities. These are people who are dealing with our food every single day. So it's incredibly important to the economy, incredibly important to the country. And this is an opportunity for us to message it in a way that I think will be received well by people general .

Phil:

And also when we look at science and technology , um, what should those two areas be doing to help not only during the pandemic and post pandemic, but helping farmers day in and day out? Well, that's a really large question you've just asked. Uh , and it requires, I think multiple, multiple answers. I mean, first of all, I think we are getting to understand that we don't have separate healthcare systems. We don't have a healthcare system for animals and healthcare system for humans. We have a one health system and they are interrelated. And to the extent that we can do a better job of detection and prevention of illnesses and diseases on the farm that potentially could translate into issues elsewhere , uh , that would certainly be beneficial to the extent that we can work with science and technology to create appropriate vaccines, appropriate medications . So that in the event, there is a, a problem on the farm or as a result of something on the farm that we're able to respond to it more quickly than we have during this current pandemic where we are stuck without a vaccine.

Tom:

And we're seeing millions of people getting sick and hundreds of tens of thousands of people die. Um, and I think it's important for science and technology also to be , uh , to equipping farmers, to understand how to measure and certify and verify the various environmental results they can get on their land, the improvements they can make to water. Um, the increase in habitat that creates as a result of these practices, all of which can lead into building , uh , the kinds of markets that can provide that those income streams I was talking about before science and technology can help develop ways in which we can convert agricultural waste, which can often be a problem and many communities into an asset. Uh, you know, I think of the manure that's produced by dairy the dairy industry. Um, you know, that is, that is rich in nutrients, it's rich and capacity and capability in the past. We've had the store we've had to , we've had lagoons and so forth and we've had environmental spills and so forth. And , and , and that has created a very difficult situation between farmers and the rest of the country. Now, what we have is the opportunity to potentially create and pelletize that manure so that it can be bagged and stored and transported. It can be, it won't be oversupplied in some locations, it won't threaten water quality and other locations it'll actually go onto land that actually needs the nutrients, that ways in which we create new jobs, manufacturing jobs in rural places, connecting farmers, rural America , uh , urban and suburban America , um, science and technology can also bring the farm to the city. I think we're going to see a lot of new innovations in terms of agricultural production and vertical farming. Uh, I , I think the sky is unlimited and frankly, as we deal with a changing climate and the adverse weather conditions that will accompany that, it's going to make it a little bit more difficult to produce food in its traditional same way. We've been producing hundreds of years. We're going to be challenged to continue to produce food for an ever increasing world population. And all of that science and technology developed here can potentially be transported elsewhere , uh , to provide greater productivity , uh , and sustainable practices so that it's not just American agriculture, that , that , uh , that is doing this, but we can help lead the rest of the world to a better place.

Phil:

Well, mr. Secretary, thank you for everything that you've done for all of us, for, for so many years. Um , appreciate that. And Aaron won . You close us out

Erin:

Secretary. Vilsack just thank you so much for donating your time and being a volunteer leader in action. We're very grateful for your service and your visionary thoughts on what we can do. Just in closing. If you thought about the next decade, what is one thing that you would like us to think about as we think about leaders in action, collaboration models for the future?

Tom:

Oh, ErinI keep going back to the theme that run throughout this conversation is I think American agriculture and the food and agriculture industry is poised to become a global leader in this issue of climate and adaptation and mitigation. I think it is an opportunity here for us to create new income revenue sources for farmers, and at the same time do right by the environment and create new job opportunities in rural places where unemployment has always historically been higher poverty rates have been higher. It is a tremendous opportunity for us to , to see this environmental challenge. We face in a different light to see the opportunity side. I think we are, I think, as a country , um, you know, especially with a pandemic, I I'm just encouraging folks to say, okay, as difficult as times are, as toughest times are where where's the opportunity, where can we create better? How do we create better from all of this? We have got to make some sense of this. We have to, we have to make the price that's being paid by. So many people is so severe. There has to be some benefit that accrues to us, or we will , uh, we , we just won't , uh, you know, we won't be in the America that I know we can be every other time we've ever been faced with something like this. America has risen to the challenge and said is tough. And as difficult as times are, we're gonna find a better way to do something. We're going to be a better America , stronger America. Uh , and that's my hope. And I think agriculture can lead the way I think agriculture can say, look, we're not, we're not , uh , frightened by this environmental challenge. We embrace it. And we embrace it in a way that will create new opportunities for farmers, especially young farmers. We embrace the notion of diversity within farming, dairy, various types of farm farms and locations of farms. Uh , we , we are embracing this exciting new future, not withstanding the challenges because at the end of the day, we've really focused on this. I think the future of American agriculture is brighter than it's ever been.

Erin:

Well, there you go. That's that are U S farmers and ranchers in action . We'll take that leadership cause thank you, Tom .

Tom:

You bet. Thank you.

Phil:

Thanks for listening to today's podcast episode, for more information on all things, food and agriculture, please visit us@usfarmersandranchers.org. Also be sure to look for us on Facebook at us farmers and ranchers or on Twitter at USFRA until next time.