Jan 19, 2023
Vilsack: Prosperity is elusive for too many farms, ranches

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, addressing the America Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) annual conference, described troubling contradictions for farmers who endured soaring production costs, supply-chain disruptions, natural disasters and more.

On one hand, Vilsack noted “the incredible story of resilience” for the nation’s agriculture, which emerged from the pandemic and global economic crises to produce “the two best years of farm income probably in the history of this country” in 2021 and 2022.

“American farmers responded to the challenge a number of years ago to continue to produce more, not just for our needs here in the U.S. but also for the needs around the world,” he said.

But increasing agricultural production, Vilsack said, hasn’t translated to increased earnings for the average family farm or ranch. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, about half of U.S. farm families had negative farm income. Many, Vilsack said, rely on off-farm income to make ends meet.

“As secretary of agriculture, it’s always difficult to know that some are doing incredibly well, and we’re thankful for that,” Vilsack said. “But to know that 50% or more of our farm families had negative farm income in a time of record farm profits suggests to me that we need to do more. We need to create more opportunities, more revenue streams, more markets, more help.”

In a wide-ranging speech in Puerto Rico at the gathering of America’s largest agricultural organization, Vilsack outlined multiple steps USDA is undertaking to boost opportunities and earnings for farmers and ranchers.

He said the intent is “to make American agriculture not just the most productive in the world — as it is — but also profitable. Not for many, but for all.”

Specifically, Vilsack cited the Biden administration’s $500 million initiative that seeks to boost the U.S. domestic fertilizer industry in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That conflict triggered global shortfalls in fertilizer supplies, inflating costs and diminishing profits for farmers.

“Your world was turned upside down…because it disrupted our capacity to receive important inputs,” Vilsack told the AFBF gathering.

Vilsack said an initial $88 million is being invested in 21 potential projects that target companies that make product in America and that use “innovative approaches that would be sustainable and, most importantly, would be farmer focused to make sure that we’re hitting the mark.”

He said the effort is intended to create “new sources of income, new market opportunities and reduced input costs based on (being) made in America.”

Vilsack promoted USDA efforts to expand competition in the meat industry to create new revenue streams for small livestock ranchers. He cited 22 projects to build new or expanded meat processing facilities to create an “opportunity for better bargains and better choices for consumers and better income for farmers.”

Vilsack outlined $3 billion in USDA investments in 141 projects to advance climate-smart farming and forestry practices that he said would help “farmers, ranchers and producers…receive a higher value for their work.”

In addition, he cited $7 billion in aid to farmers across the country for financial relief for crop and commodity losses from 2020 and 2021 natural disasters.

“We want to create a vibrant and resilient rural economy,” Vilsack said. “We want to create opportunity for farmers, not just to depend on a commodity market that can change on a whim but to be able to have three, four, five or six different profit centers operating out of their farm.”

He said he wants to help farmers “continue to farm and to be able to say to the next generation and the next generation that they too can have the same opportunity.”

– Peter Hecht, California Farm Bureau Federation

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