Sec. Vilsack is in the hot seat as ag leaders say should be top priority for the Farm Bill

Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee. The main topics centered around hat should be in the next Farm Bill as well as expanding access to high speed internet in rural America.

Farm Bill discussions continue on Capitol Hill. At the latest Senate Ag Committee hearing, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is in the hot seat. Lawmakers ask questions of the Secretary on everything from expanding broadband to underserved and rural communities to farm safety programs. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi wants assurances that USDA is willing to help all farmers from small and urban to large conventional farms.

“My concern is truly feeding the masses. What’s the intent of Congress and when administering the farm safety net programs? What are your goals and objectives,” asked Hyde-Smith.

“Our goal, simply stated, is to keep people on the farm. If they are suffering from a disaster that results in their inability to continue farming, that’s why you got a safety net, to basically allow them and ensure that they can stay on the farm. I want to be very clear about this, Senator, when we talk about the 90 percent of the farms that didn’t make money, didn’t make enough, the majority of it came from off-farm income, we’re talking about farms that sold less than $1,000,000. The farms you’re talking about, the large commercial-sized farms sold more than $1,000,000. I don’t think it’s an either or circumstance and I don’t think anyone should phrase it or discuss it in the context. I think we need both – we clearly need production, there’s no question about that, and we’re going to continue to have incredibly large, efficient, effective operations,” said Vilsack.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa had a similar question. His concern is that small to medium-sized farmers are being overlooked.

“Is it philosophically possible for you and/or the Administration to work with us to try and find some payment limitations so that we’re helping the medium and small size farmers as opposed to subsidizing the big farmers, the multi-big farmers that get bigger,” asked Grassley.

“The key here, I think, Senator, is to figure out ways in which we can help the small and mid-sized producers in a meaningful way. I think not only is it safety net, but it’s also market development. I think we have to create more income opportunities for those producers. I don’t think that they’re necessarily going to be able to compete successfully in a commodity-based market, if that’s the only option they have, they got to have other ways to make money,” Vilsack said.

Meanwhile, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a vegan, had questions about the meat-packing industry and the Packers and Stockyards Act.

“I hope you agree that we should not be awarding multi-national cooperations who exploit children under labor laws with lucrative government contracts. What does Congress need to do in this Farm Bill to make sure that USDA contracts stop going to these bad actors and start going to small businesses and independent family farmers and ranchers who treat their workers, animals, and communities with respect,” asked Booker.

“I think, Senator, supporting the work that we’re starting to make sure the procurement dollars that USDA invests don’t necessarily go to large-scale commercial operations, but that a percentage of them be spent with and invested in small and regional local food systems. We’ve got to have a companion system, in my view, to make our food system more resilient and to address some of the concerns that you just addressed. There needs to be more competition and one way to get competition is to make sure the procurement dollars are being spent with good employers. I will tell you that the Department of Agriculture is one of the first department it’s looking at ways in which we can ensure that when we use our procurement dollars, we use them with companies that understand the importance of food safety, importance of following the rules,” said Vilsack.

Senator Deb Fischer of Nebraska also asked the Secretary about his department’s efforts in getting Mexico to reconsider its ban on GMO corn, which many say is in direct violation of the USMCA trade agreement. Vilsack said they are taking steps to find a resolution.