Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke May 26 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry:

“Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member and Members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss U.S. agriculture and the next farm bill.

“Many folks don’t recognize it, but America’s farmers and our agriculture industry are responsible in no small way for the health and strength of this nation. Not only do we rely on American agriculture for our food, feed, fiber, and fuel, our agricultural producers preserve our environment, and help drive our national economy.

“Agriculture is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in America. And while many sectors of our economy are running trade deficits, American agriculture has enjoyed a trade surplus for nearly 50 years. This year we expect a record surplus and record agricultural exports should help support more than 1 million jobs across the nation.

“What’s more, the incredible productivity of America’s farmers and ranchers makes us more prosperous. American families spend only about 6 or 7 cents out of every dollar on food — less than in almost any other nation. That means we spend more on a nice home, save for retirement, or fund our children’s college education.

“And America’s farmers have taken extraordinary steps to take care of our nation’s natural resources. In the last 30 years alone, USDA has worked to help producers reduce soil erosion by more than 40 percent and agriculture has gone from being the leading cause of wetland loss to leading the entire nation in wetland restoration efforts. Our farms act as carbon sinks, mitigating the impact of global warming. Farm lands, pasture, and forests help clean the water we drink and the air we breathe.

“But America’s farmers — as the Chairwoman has noted in her invitation to this hearing — also have a role in feeding a growing world population. They do this not only through historic productivity and record exports, but through the development and embrace of new research, and innovative practices, technologies and institutional structures that can be shared with the rest of the world.

“At USDA, we support farmers in both their domestic responsibilities and international role. Additionally, the Department seeks to conserve the nations national resources, build thriving rural communities, and ensure that every American has access to healthy, safe, affordable food.

“So as you prepare to write a new farm bill, you will have to discuss how USDA continues to support these various goals. At the same time, there will be considerable external pressures on that process: fiscal and political realities about the size of the debt, the deficit, and the tight budget environment they have inspired.

Smaller farm bill expected

“I have no doubts that the next farm bill will be smaller than the one agreed to in 2008. In acknowledging that reality, I hope this Committee will give serious thought to your priorities for American agriculture — your priorities for USDA — and to the values of the American people.

“USDA is prepared to do as much as we can with fewer resources, but there is no doubt that cuts will have real impacts for American agriculture and the American people. There will be pain and everyone will have to sacrifice something. There are no easy cuts. Waste, fraud and abuse are real, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the big budget picture. Today, USDA is already being forced to make tough choices based on the budget resolution that is funding us through the end of this fiscal year.

“As a result of those cuts — and because I assume there will be more coming — I am asking top leaders at USDA to think creatively about how we do businesses. Are there changes we could make in structure, program delivery, staffing, or responsibilities that would improve our efficiency or quality of service? I want folks to look at this moment as an opportunity to build a USDA for the 21st century — one that does things differently and might not deliver all the services we do today.

“And I would ask, as you prepare to write the farm bill, that you do the same. Let us know what your priorities are. Are there places where the private or non-profit sectors can or should be involved? What are the results you want? Where should USDA focus its energy? And what are the resources your able to provide to meet the goals you set for the Department?  

“When those elements begin to be settled, I would ask you to give USDA the flexibility to serve American agriculture and the American people as effectively as possible. While prescriptive programs are appealing, they can make it difficult for USDA to deliver the best results for Americans. Giving us the flexibility and time we need to adjust can make a big difference.

“Please also recognize that we cannot simply cut our way out of a deficit — we have to help grow our way out. If we want to grow businesses, create jobs, and increase incomes, we need to make sure America is built to compete. We will have to bear the cutbacks while still investing in our future, so that we strengthen the middle class, American agriculture and rural communities and grow our economy.

“In the end, the American farmer and rancher should be instructive to this body. The strength of American producers comes from their willingness to adapt, to work hard, to shoulder sacrifice, and to innovate. As Congress moves to write a farm bill with limited resources, I hope you think of USDA in a similar light.

“We are ready to adapt and innovate, but we need clear goals and the resources to get us there. I look forward to working with Congress, Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, to craft the next farm bill to serve — as best we can with the budget we are given — American agriculture and the American people.