INTERVIEW: USDA’s Vilsack Touts Innovation, Regulatory Certainty

Dec 19, 2012

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Photo: Ian Wagreich

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wants the businesses community to know: there are a lot of exciting advances and opportunities in modern agriculture. “We’re on the cutting edge of a new economy,” says the former Democratic governor of Iowa. Vilsack spoke with to discuss innovation, regulatory certainty, and agricultural exports ahead of a December 19 visit to the U.S. Chamber to speak at Agriculture: Growing Innovation and Opportunities, an event put on by the National Chamber Foundation.

Free You’re speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this week. What will your message be for those business leaders?

Sec. Vilsack: One of my messages will be about how it is important for the entire country to understand the contributions rural America makes to the rest of the country. Part of it is the ability of rural America to meet the food needs of the country. Part of the reason it can do that is innovation.

Innovation is driving a new economy in rural areas. For example, there are 3,100 companies that take plant material and turn it into something else. Through nanotechnology, a Wisconsin business has turned corn cobs into 100% recyclable plastic bottles. There already are technologies to turn hog waste into asphalt and soybeans into tires. Ford’s vehicle seats are being made from soybean-based materials. We have the possibility of taking what we grow and turning it into medicine

There’s a whole lot of good, positive, proactive activity taking place in rural America, and, honestly, I don’t think it’s appreciated by the rest of the country. I don’t even think it’s appreciated by the business community generally because it often doesn’t think of or see investment opportunities in these new emerging industries. What are the barriers, if any, that are holding innovation and productivity back?

Sec. Vilsack: One barrier is the lack of understanding and appreciation for how sophisticated rural America is. There’s a stereotype out there that folks in agriculture and folks in rural areas are wearing overalls and chewing on a piece of straw, when in fact these farmers are in charge of multimillion-dollar operations, operating very, very expensive and high-tech equipment and using the latest technologies to be one of the most productive aspects of our economy. 

The result has been that, even in the tough economic times, farming now is at record levels. Exports are at record levels. We’ve had trade surpluses for an extended period of time, and there are record numbers of acres enrolled in conservation. There are new outdoor recreation opportunities and record expansion of new local and regional food systems.

A lack of recognition of these things means that there’s a lack of the kind of capital that could accelerate this progress. You said that the USDA is working on creating opportunities. Could you talk a little bit more about what some of those are?

Sec. Vilsack: Well, we have a number of programs at the USDA that provide either grants or loans to businesses to essentially encourage bio-based product companies. Our BioPreferred program lists thousands of bio-based products that are sold by commercial enterprises to federal agencies. There are multiple hundreds of millions of dollars of purchasing opportunities here for business, and there is a preference given to bio-based products. So companies that are in the business of producing a bio-based product have a ready market in federal agencies. Solvents, inks, greases, lubricants, clothing, fuel -- these are examples of the kinds of things that USDA and other federal agencies are buying from preferred companies that are producing them through biology. 

We are also about promoting market opportunities, particularly in the export area. We have a very aggressive market promotion program, particularly for smaller businesses. We helped nearly 2,500 small businesses last year export for the first time. We help them with trade shows and bring potential buyers from other countries to the United States to see what they have to sell. What recommendations do you have for reducing the regulatory burden on farmers and businesses that are involved in agriculture?

Sec. Vilsack: One thing I think farmers have to understand is that they have to be definitive about what they mean by regulatory burdens. One of the frustrations I have in this business is people who start talking about excess regulations, then when you ask them to identify with precision what regulation they’re complaining about, it ends up it’s not actually a regulation in effect or it is not something that they think it is.

For the last two years we’ve been hearing from farmers about an EPA plan to regulate farm dust.  Well, that circulated around the countryside, and we kept saying, ‘no, no, no, that’s not going to happen; that’s not what the EPA’s doing; that’s not correct.’  But for the life of me, we couldn’t convince people. So one thing is basically making sure we know precisely what we’re talking about.

But more specifically, to answer your question, one of the things that we’re working on is a concept called regulatory certainty. It’s not that you do away with the regulation; it’s that you’re clear about what the regulation is and that you provide a series of steps that a farmer can take to comply with that regulation and to guarantee that the regulation will not change, or the requirements will not change, for an extended period of time. It’s not so much that farmers object to regulations. They need to know what they are, and they need to be assured that once they comply with it, they’re not going to have to comply with something different a year later.

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