Politics angers U.S. ag secretary

U.S. secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack says the U.S. farm lobby has lost its clout in Washington and needs to form alliances to get the attention of politicians.  |  Sean Pratt photo

Tom Vilsack demands action | Farmers urged to call congressmen to deliver new farm bill

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The once mighty U.S. farm lobby has lost some of its influence in the nation’s capital, farmers were told last week.

“Unfortunately, what’s happened in Washington is nobody is listening to all of you,” U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told the more than 6,000 farmers attending the 2013 Commodity Classic.

That is exemplified by a number of policy failures, highlighted by Congress’s inability to agree on a new farm bill to replace the old one that expired last year.

Politicians have refused to give the U.S. Department of Agriculture a new operating budget and are funding the agency at levels below what it had to work with in 2009.

As well, agriculture is shouldering more than its share of $85 billion in budget cuts despite already trimming its budget by $700 million to $1 billion over the last two years.

“This is crazy what’s happening. This shouldn’t happen. In a functioning democracy, this shouldn’t happen,” said Vilsack, his voice cracking with emotion.

He urged farmers in the audience to pick up the phone and call their members of Congress and tell them to forget about politics and votes and act on behalf of their constituents.

“ ‘Do your job. End the sequester. Get a budget passed. Give us a good, solid five-year farm bill,’ ” said Vilsack.

His message resonated with farm leaders gathered in Florida, such as Pam Johnson, president of the National Corn Growers Association, the nation’s most powerful commodity group.

“Everybody out there as an American and a farmer needs to call their congressman and say, ‘we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore,’” she said to thunderous applause.

“Quit pointing fingers. Quit (assigning) blame. And let’s get something responsibly done in Washington, D.C.”

Danny Murphy, president of the American Soybean Association, said the lack of a new farm bill is a clear indication that Congress doesn’t view farm policy as a priority.

He said it’s important that agriculture groups learn to speak with a united voice.

“There was some north-south division on some of the crops that hampered things last year,” he said in an interview.

Vilsack said he believes agriculture is being neglected because there are fewer farmers in rural America and that means fewer voters.

“You’re less than one percent of the population, and that’s the most liberal definition of a farmer,” he said.

“We’ve got to figure out ways in which we can enlarge our political relevance. Part of it involves making sure that we are strategically aligned.”

He told the corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers it’s time to reach out to the people who load grain vessels and in the food service and grocery industries because they rely on a healthy farm sector.

Vilsack said it’s also time to switch to a more proactive message that will attract young people to the industry rather than simply offering a litany of complaints.

“We have to move our message beyond the difficulties and challenges that we face, the regulatory concerns that we have, the tax concerns that we have.”

The recent Dodge Ram truck Super Bowl commercial, which received plenty of accolades, is a good example of what he’d like to see out of farm groups.

“It was a great ad because it talked about the character, the resilience, the significance, the importance of what you all do.”

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