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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the Farm Bill

David Brancaccio Apr 20, 2012

David Brancaccio: But first to Washington, where the Republican-controlled House has passed a $46 billion tax cut for most of America’s employers that supporters knew was doomed never to make it into law. Republicans had said it would help small businesses; Democrats said it was a new perk for wealthy taxpayers; and the president has threatened a veto. In this election year, there’s much important work that’s floating in limbo, including the massive 2012 Farm Bill.

Joining us is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack. Thanks for joining us, Mr. Secretary.

Tom Vilsack: It’s great to be with you, David.

Brancaccio: The Farm Bill looks to be stalled in Congress, possibly for quite a long time. What does that mean, do you think, for U.S. agriculture?

Vilsack: Well David, I’m not willing to concede that the Farm Bill is necessarily stalled. Obviously we need a Farm Bill. There are many reasons for that: the safety net that it provides producers; the environmental and conservation practices that it pays for; and the rural development job creation that goes with it. So we’re obviously interested in getting the Farm Bill done this year.

Brancaccio: Now of course, the vast U.S. agriculture industry really, farms, can tick along with that bill stalled, right? It’s not going to armageddon if you don’t get that passed?

Vilsack: Well, it depends. If you happen to be a farmer who finds yourself in the way of a tornado or a flood, you’re going to need what I like to refer to as the Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, because that’s going to be the vehicle by which you will be able to continue to purchase crop insurance and continue to have some kind of a disaster program that overlays crop insurance to make sure that you’re not put under by one disaster. Secondly, these farm programs also help to support our export efforts. We had a record year in ag exports last year, which has helped us to get to a record farm income. We need the programs within the Farm Bill to be able to continue to market ag products abroad.

Brancaccio: Mr. Secretary, you are still a fire-breathing defender of the use of biofuels. You don’t worry that acreage used for fuel is acreage not used for food, and food prices go up?

Vilsack: Well, the reality is that those are myths that have been propagated by those who are opposed to the biofuel industry. Let’s first of all look at the benefits of that industry: Not only does it improve farm income, people need to know that gas prices would be somewhere between 80 cents and $1.30 a gallon more were it not for the biofuel industry. We are moving away from a reliance on corn, so we’re now working to promote bio-refineries that will use woody biomass, municipal waste, switchgrass — a whole series of alternatives that’s going to add value, provide an opportunity for all regions of the country to participate in this industry and make it a little bit more convenient and available for consumers.

Brancaccio: And bless you for not saying the word ‘cellulosic’; what did you say — ‘woody’?

Vilsack: Woody biomass.

Brancaccio: All right. Well, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, thank you very much for the time.

Vilsack: All right David, take care.

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