Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack on the worst drought in decades

Corn plants struggle to survive in a drought-stricken farm field on July 18, 2012 near Vincennes, Ind.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks about a drought destroying crops and livestock during the Daily Press Briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 18, 2012.

Jeremy Hobson: Soybean prices have reached a record high. And corn prices are near records, as what's being called the worst drought since the 1950s takes a toll on farms across the Midwest. The pain is already being felt by farmers, and it could impact all of us soon in the form of higher prices for everything from cereal to chicken.

We're joined this morning by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. He's with us from Washington. Good morning.

Tom Vilsack: Good morning.

Hobson: Well who is being affected most by this drought and where are you focusing your attention?

Vilsack: Well, the interesting thing about this drought is how widespread it is. If you take a look at this drought and compare it to what occurred in the 1930s and what occurred in the 1950s and what most recently – about 25 years ago – occurred in 1988, this drought is less severe, at this point in time but certainly more widespread.

Hobson: And what kind of impact could it have? What are your fears about that at the moment?

Vilsack: It’s already having a very significant and serious impact on production and yields. We expect at this point in time nearly 40 percent of our corn crop and a little over 30 percent of bean crop is in poor or very poor condition which are very high numbers. Conversely those numbers are somewhat similar to how much corn is in good and excellent shape and normally we have 60 to 70 percent of crops in good to excellent shape and now we’re looking at 30 percent of our crops.

Hobson: Any sense of the impact this will have on consumer prices?

Vilsack: Well, here’s the interesting thing: The livestock producers are the most impacted directly today, by this drought. So they may start liquidating herds. When they do that, prices for meat and poultry and pork over time will go up a bit but it takes quite a bit of a jump for food prices to be dramatically affected by something this.

Hobson: Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you one more question before I let you go. This is -- as you said – the worst drought in decades, the first half of this year, according to the government, was the hottest in 118 years of record keeping across the country, the U.K. just had its wettest June since records began there. Is it the view of the U.S. government that this is climate change?

Vilsack: Well, I’m not an expert on climate change so it probably wouldn’t be appropriate for me to respond specifically to that question. My focus and I think the focus of the USDA and the president, right now is on making sure that we get help to these folks, making sure, for example, that people know that they got to contact their insurance agent, if they have crop insurance, that they may have a damaged crop so that they won’t lose rights under their policy, that’s our focus.

It’s not to trying to figure out, today, what may be causing this or what may be impacting it. We know it is impacting farmers and ranchers. Our hearts go out to their families and these hard working folks. We just want to be able to provide them some help and assistance.

Hobson: Tom Vilsack is the secretary of agriculture. Thank you so much.

Vilsack: Thank you.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks about a drought destroying crops and livestock during the Daily Press Briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 18, 2012.

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