The Agriculture Department is best known for distributing farm subsidies, but Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa, said in a March 17 interview with National Journal that he is determined to maximize USDA's powers to aid hungry people and develop renewable energy.
Vilsack was born in a Pennsylvania orphanage and adopted by parents who had addiction problems, and he has struggled with his own weight since childhood. Vilsack has said he learned how difficult farming could be when he joined his father-in-law's law practice in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, and did farmers' taxes and helped them with legal problems during the farm crisis of the 1980s.
Vilsack, a Democrat, served two terms as governor of Iowa beginning in 1998 and ran for president in 2008. He said that his No. 1 goal is fulfilling President Obama's mandate to end childhood hunger by 2015 and improve children's diets. Their second goal, he said, is to make sure that America's farmers, ranchers, and foresters play a significant role in renewable-energy production. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
NJ: You've been Agriculture secretary for almost two months. How do you like the job?
Vilsack: This is a thrilling opportunity to participate in a time in American history that is going to chart a new and exciting and different future for the country despite our challenges.... This is about creating a sustainable economy for those who farm and ranch, it's about creating vibrant and exciting communities in rural America that are linked to the entire world through technology.
It is about maintaining the confidence level that Americans have come to expect in their food supply. It is about using agriculture, our knowledge, our technical assistance, and our resources to put a different face on America to the rest of the world. And it's about USDA's partnership with other agencies of government to tackle the health care crisis by focusing on more nutritious eating, especially among our children.
NJ: You don't have a deputy or undersecretaries in place yet. Has that been hard?
Vilsack: I'm just anxious to be progressive and aggressive, and it's hard to do when you are by yourself. Taking nothing away from the career folks, who are doing a great job of keeping the trains running on time, we obviously want to move in a faster and different direction.
NJ: The Agriculture Department has a long history of racial discrimination, with many black farmers complaining that historically they did not get the same level of service in the South. And a number of department employees from various racial and ethnic backgrounds have filed discrimination cases. After your ethics training, you said you had decided to make civil rights a priority. You traveled to Georgia to speak to black farmers, and you attended the American Indian farmers' conference in Washington. What led you to that emphasis?
Vilsack: This department has such a rich history. The fact that it was established by Abraham Lincoln creates a mandate for each succeeding administration to protect and to add to his legacy of emancipation. So many other aspects of America have done a lot of work to open up opportunity, and with the election of the first African-American president, it seemed absolutely appropriate and timely to resolve multiple-decades-long complaints. And I received encouragement to focus on that from [former Agriculture] Secretary [Dan] Glickman when I met with him in preparation for this job. [Former] Secretary [Ann] Veneman also encouraged it.
NJ: When you presented a budget proposing cuts to farm programs while increasing spending for child nutrition, Congress and farm groups had a swift and negative reaction. Did it surprise you?
Vilsack: You have to respect the fact that we'd had a very extensive discussion and debate about the farm bill, and folks had worked really hard on it. Farm groups obviously were very concerned about maintaining an appropriate safety net that you have to have, especially during difficult times. It was difficult when you are putting together a budget in a really short time. It generally takes months -- and you have weeks and you don't have staff and you don't have undersecretaries. It didn't surprise me at all.
NJ: You have a lot of fans in the farm groups and in Congress. They believe that the budget proposal came from the bowels of the Office of Management and Budget.
Vilsack: I'm not going to get into where it came from. It's very clear what the president's priorities are, and they are good priorities. He was very clear to me when he hired me that he wanted to improve nutrition for America's children -- ending hunger among children by 2015 and also responding to the obesity crisis that we have with our youngsters. So, that means we had to put more money into nutrition. The second thing he said to me was, we want to continue to push bioenergy, biofuels, renewable fuels, and renewable energy and we expect you to do that in this department, so we put more resources into the [renewable-energy] program in our budget. There may be different ways, there may be better ways to structure the details of that budget, but there will be no mistake and no compromise on the goals and on the priorities. It is a process. We have branches of government for a reason.
NJ: President Obama has promised to end childhood hunger by 2015 and improve children's diets. You've proposed spending $1 billion more on child nutrition, but haven't said how you would spend the money. Among childhood nutrition advocates, there are splits over whether additional money should be spent to increase access to food through programs such as school breakfast and summer feeding or whether more money should be spent to buy fresh fruits and vegetables and local food purchases. How would you divide this up?
Vilsack: Both sides of this discussion are correct. You have to continue to improve access and you have to figure out a way for those meals to be more nutritious and you have to figure out what happens when youngsters are not in school so they continue to eat nutritious food. It is a combination of additional resources and a reallocation of existing resources. Are there better ways of spending and investing the monies that we currently have? If there are, those need to be instituted.
I believe our budget will reflect the view that there are administrative savings that can be had by making the process more streamlined, by reducing paperwork and burdens on local schools in exchange for which they would be required to purchase more fruits and vegetables and extend access. I also think we need to be creative about the money we are spending and investing. Are there better ways to spend the money in the summer months, during weekends? Are there very popular and well organized and properly working programs that need to be replicated and modeled? I think we have those. We need to go where the kids are in the summertime, not expect them to come to us. So we are going to look at creative ways to do that....
It's also about additional resources. There are issues. Congress has issues with indirect costs. That is also an appropriate discussion point. The money we are providing for nutrition needs to be used for nutrition. It isn't designed -- notwithstanding the fact that school budgets are strapped, it is not designed to fund other important work of the school district. That's state and local's responsibility.
NJ: You recently noted that the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the State Department want to make sure that whatever aid you provide to the troubled dairy industry does not interfere with trade agreements. Have you figured out what you can do? How are your relations developing with those agencies?
Vilsack: I obviously have a profound respect for Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton. We have talked briefly about how our departments can be better utilized. I know [U.S. Trade Representative] Ron Kirk well. I had a lot of respect for the work he did as a mayor. We share that in common, although his town [Dallas] was a little bit bigger than the one I was mayor of [Mount Pleasant, Iowa]. The reality is that sometimes problems can be solved by the department alone and sometimes they require interagency conversation; and in a new administration, you have to feel your way around those jurisdictional issues.
We are going to be able to provide help to the dairy industry based on what USDA's powers are without necessarily consulting with State and USTR, by purchasing surplus commodities and redistributing them through the school lunch program and food banks, and also using them to supplement what we do with [the] McGovern-Dole [international school feeding program], all of which is important and appropriate and necessary in responding to a very serious crisis in the dairy industry. What can be done beyond that will require consultation with the trade representative and the State Department. It's possible that the work we are going to do within USDA will be a sufficient level of help to get a lot of the dairy folks through a really tough time.
NJ: Do you think the dairy producers are going to have to go to Congress for help?
Vilsack: The dairy industry has done a really good job of anticipating that things like this can happen. They have put themselves in a position with their program within the dairy industry itself to allow for a glide path for a gradual reduction in the herd size through creative loans and so forth to farmers. I think you are going to see an engaged industry, I think you are going to see an engaged USDA. We'll take a step back and see whether other steps are required. I don't think that we can say for sure today they are going to require congressional assistance. There's also a variety of other programs within the safety net that we are putting together that might be of assistance, that might be helpful.
NJ: President Obama has announced you and the Health and Human Services secretary would head up a food safety working group. How do you expect the food safety efforts to evolve?
Vilsack: The president appropriately responded in an aggressive way to the concerns Americans have about food safety. Americans are becoming engaged consumers, they want to know where their food comes from, they want to know what's in their food, they want to know how their food has been processed and where it's grown. This is an extension of that desire to know and to be confident that when they feed food to their families it is safe and secure.
Once Gov. [Kathleen] Sebelius is confirmed... and once the [FDA] commissioner is confirmed, I believe we will get together and begin to establish the parameters of this working group, consistent with the President's directive. It is not an easy discussion because of the number of agencies involved, as many as 15 agencies. Bifurcation between Health and Human Services and USDA further complicates it. The size and scope and the magnitude of the number of establishments involved in handling our food complicate it. And the fact that some of the problems that occur with foodborne illness are not a result of how the food was processed or marketed or sold or shipped, but how it was prepared. So there is an education component of all this.
We have to be mindful of the fact that we have trading partners and they are going to be keeping an eye on what this all means. I had a conversation with Secretary Napolitano just the other day about the important work that APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] can do and should do and ought to do in continuing training for Customs folks so that as items come into this country, we're certain they are as safe as they can be.
NJ: How do you feel your efforts are going to make sure agriculture is at the table in important administration decision making?
Vilsack: I would point out that in [Vice President Joe Biden's] middle class task force , we are at the table, we are the co-lead with HHS on food safety, we are at the table, it is very clear that the vice president's effort to remind people with the stimulus, that agriculture is front and center because we are in a position to get our resources into the economy more quickly, through the SNAP program [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] , through the Forest Service, through Rural Development we're putting people to work today, we are putting hundreds of millions of dollars out into the economy today. We don't have to do what many of the other departments have to do because they are new programs for them. We don't have to develop new rules and regulations. We can use existing programs....
I think people recognize we're in town and that we have a lot of roles that can be played that are important in creating this economy, putting people back to work, making sure we have a mush healthier nation and making sure that we are really focused on the President's focus on energy and breaking that dependence on foreign oil.
NJ: The agriculture community seems divided over cap-and-trade [pollution controls] and whether agriculture would benefit or simply end up with a higher cost of production. Are you confident that climate-change measures and cap-and-trade can work to agriculture's benefit?
Vilsack: It's certainly understandable that people are a little concerned about it. Most of the conversation on cap-and-trade is focused on the energy industry and on manufacturing, where there will likely be additional costs or a reallocation of resources.
Agriculture is a little unique and a little different. First, it is not quite the carbon manufacturer or carbon dioxide generator that those other industries are. We are more focused on nitrogen and on methane because of the nature of agriculture. We are somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of the problem, a very small part. It involves how you farm and what you farm and what you use to farm and what machinery you use and what energy sources you use and what you feed livestock and what you do with manure produced by livestock and what you do with gases produced by livestock. So, we have a job to do to educate people and make them far more comfortable with precisely what it does mean for agriculture and forestry. As this discussion unfolds over the next seven or eight months in this country, as we head toward Copenhagen and the United States taking a leadership role as the president envisions, people are going to become more aware of what agriculture can do, what the costs are, and what the opportunity side is.
I think what we'll find is, assuming that carbon is priced, which I suspect it will be in a carbon-tax or a cap-and-trade system, you're going to see agriculture have opportunities. It all depends on the price of carbon, but I think those opportunities will reassure people that this is not going to be a net negative for agriculture, it's going to be a positive for agriculture.
NJ: House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, who has talked about reorganizing USDA, said after lunch with you last week that he believes you will take an interest in organization and management issues at USDA. What views on government management do you bring from your experience as governor of Iowa? What are your views on organization and management at USDA so far?
Vilsack: I've looked at the 38 pages of performance measures, and I think we can improve on them and tie them specifically and directly to results so that we are in a position that we are able to tell folks the $100 billion they are investing each year at USDA is creating the kinds of results that people want, it is creating a safer food system, it is creating more opportunities for farmers and ranchers to prosper, it is creating more vibrant rural communities and jobs, it is creating a Forest Service that helps to reduce America's carbon footprint and acts as a reservoir for water for 16 million Americans and creates recreational and business opportunities for others.
Tying what we do to specific, articulated results is a very important function of what the management side of this agency has to do. To do that not only requires a commitment by leadership to make that happen. The president has been very clear in his expectation in that respect. It also requires the technology to do it. In talking with the chairman I understand that he understands the need for modern technology for us to do our job and for us to do our job in a more convenient way for the people we serve. It is frustrating to farmers and ranchers who want to be able to access information that we are still in a more paper orientation than a technology orientation. It is also frustrating, it seems to people it takes forever to implement the farm bill and the Recovery and Reinvestment Act because we have to rewrite old, old, old, old software so that it is available to calculate the new programs.
The third component of this is to recognize strategically that we have a workforce that works hard every day but in comparison to the general workforce is a little older. Fifty-four percent of our workers are over the age of 45. The general population is 41 percent. We have to look forward and say to ourselves what does this mean, what do we have to do in terms of institutional knowledge and, as these folks retire and they will, what does that mean for USDA?
NJ: John Clifford, the deputy administrator of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Service recently testified before the House Agriculture Committee about the benefits of a mandatory national animal identification system in preventing the spread of animal disease, but many ranchers oppose a mandatory system. What is your thinking on mandatory animal identification at this time and whether it should be mandatory?
Vilsack: Chairman Peterson certainly understands from a Homeland Security and mitigation of risk standpoint the importance of having some kind of identification system. We want to be supportive of the chairman's efforts, but I think it will be important for us to create a process by which those who have serious concerns about this are in a position to articulate those concerns and to work with us to resolve or reduce them.
Those who are concerned about the government's misuse of information, those concerned about privacy and confidentiality, those who are concerned that there is some motive beyond the obvious of making sure that we can mitigate the consequences of a disease because we know precisely where it started and we can quarantine effectively -- it is up to us to create a participatory process that brings people to the table. Let's work through that process and get us to the point that when we have a system, that people are not working to undermine the system or figure out a way around the system. Let's try to figure out a way in which people can embrace it.
NJ: When you speak about the 125,000 largest farmers who produce three-quarters of our food supply, you speak more with respect than with personal fervor. You must have known big farmers in Iowa. What is your view of these farmers and their role?
Vilsack: [Big farmers] are obviously important. They produce 75 percent of the food that we eat and they produce the capacity to export, which allows us to have a trade surplus [in agriculture]. All farmers and all ranchers along the spectrum are important and none are more important or less important.
The folks who are small producers are important because they are the folks who are struggling to populate rural Iowa and rural America, and are struggling to make sure we eat nutritiously. They are the folks who are creating a sense of community with the farmers markets. The people in the middle -- God, my heart goes out to them -- those are the folks who are struggling every single day to get that pencil to be as fine a point as they possibly can so they stay in business and keep their kids on the farm.
The larger producers -- we will really need to provide greater assistance in areas of biotechnology, in terms of export assistance. It's tough to talk about biotechnology in an emotional way unless you tie it to feeding the world, which I'm happy to do. Everybody's important.
This article appears in the March 27, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.