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AgriTalk Transcript: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was a guest on today’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams where the discussion focused, in part, on the Farm Bill, trade issues, and the proposed Dietary Guidelines.  An unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of the discussion with Sec. Vilsack is available below.

Mr. Adams: Welcome back. We’re at USDA, talking now with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. We appreciate your time, Mr. Secretary. We know you have a lot going on. We just have a limited amount of time, so we want to touch on as many areas as we can. We have a deadline coming up next Tuesday for signup in the farm bill. We just talked with Deputy Secretary Harden, who said you monitor the signup. Are you happy with the way it’s going?

Sec. Vilsack: I am, Mike. We’ve got 95% of the acres reallocated and yields adjusted for 95% of the farms that we expect to participate in that part of it, and about 85% have already made elections on ARC and PLC, which is a significant increase. We’re seeing day-to-day two or three or four percent increase, so we are very pleased with where we are.

And we want to remind folks that if you don’t sign up before the end of the deadline, then the election will be made for you, you’ll be in the PLC program, but you won’t be entitled to benefits in 2015, so we really encourage people to get this work done. And all you need to do is get on the registry, get your appointment set up, and that qualifies.

Mr. Adams: So you do not anticipate, at this point, the need or even the consideration of an extension of that deadline in any way?

Sec. Vilsack: We’re going to look at this from day to day. I’ve talked to our team about maybe the opportunity for flexibility. But given the pace of what we’re seeing, it may not be necessary.

Mr. Adams: But that’s still a possibility?

Sec. Vilsack: It’s still a possibility.

Mr. Adams: Okay, so we’ll watch that as far as as we get closer to that deadline next Tuesday. When would you make that call if there was an extension?

Sec. Vilsack: Probably the end of this week.

Mr. Adams: And of this week.

Sec. Vilsack: Yeah.

Mr. Adams: Okay, all right. While we’re here, let’s also talk about trade, because that’s a very hot issue, the talk of TPA and how that impacts, of course, deals like TPP. Where do you think that stands, and getting that message out about the importance of TPA? Because there still seems to be a reluctance by some to go with that. How important is it?

Sec. Vilsack: Mike, farmers need to get engaged in this conversation. They need to make sure their members of Congress and their senators understand how important this is for them personally and for agriculture generally. Thirty percent of our ag sales trade related, roughly equivalent to our net farm income, so if we don’t have export opportunities, we’re not going to make as much money.

This TPP opportunity is a huge opportunity to expand to an increasing middle class in Asia—five hundred and twenty-five million consumers, middle class consumers today in Asia. In just 15 years it’ll be 3.2 billion. It’s a huge opportunity for us. We anticipate $123 billion impact on our overall economy from TPP. Ag is roughly 9% of exports. You can do the math. So we’re talking about hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of opportunity. This is critically important.

Last point. If we don’t do this, China will. I’d rather have us lead the effort on labor, and environment, and enforcement mechanisms, and IP protection, and agriculture than having the Chinese lead that effort.

Mr. Adams: A concern about Japan. Will they come down on their tariffs? Will they play ball with the other partners in this? What are you hearing?

Sec. Vilsack: We’ve had progress with Japan. Still work to do. Our Canadian friends less flexible and less willing to negotiate. Part of it, I think, is that we don’t have TPA in place. Those that we’re negotiating with are assuming that, under the current situation, any trade agreement would be subject to modification or amendment by Congress. That’s 535 people that could weigh in on this. We can’t have that if we want to conclude these negotiations in a timely way. We need to get Trade Promotion Authority done.

Mr. Adams: I want to talk about these proposed dietary guidelines. A lot of concern, especially in the livestock industry, that red meat is going to be phased out of the school lunch programs. You’re going to be very much involved in making these final determinations. You have said it’s about health, it’s about nutrition, not about environment. What can you tell us about how this process is going to play out?

Sec. Vilsack: Well, the first thing is we extended the comment period because we want to make sure people have an opportunity to weigh in on this. And I want to reassure people who are listening to this program and reassure the ag community that I understand what my job is. My job is not what the experts on the panel, Scientific Advisory Panel, had. They had freedom to basically opine about a lot of different things. And some of the things that they brought up are appropriate to have discussions about, perhaps not in the context of dietary guidelines, but in the context of overall where are we headed in agriculture.

My job, based on the statute, based on the law, I took an oath to follow the law, follow the Constitution. That oath basically says even if I want to talk about other things, I have to look at dietary and nutrition. That’s what we ought to be deciding these guidelines on, and that’s what I intend to make sure that I do. Obviously I can’t speak for the full process because Secretary Burwell’s got a very important role to play as well.

Mr. Adams: You’ve come out with the definition “actively engaged” as far as those that can receive farm program benefits. Senator Grassley says it’s a step in the right direction. He would like to see it go farther. Tell us about how you came up with this particular definition and who you see it applying to.

Sec. Vilsack: I think we’ve probably hit it just about right because the folks who wanted more strict restrictions are not happy, the folks who feel maybe we’ve gone a little bit too far are not happy, so I suspect we’ve hit it right. Look, Congress directed us to do this, but also limited us in terms of what we could do. It said you can’t do this relative to family farms, you don’t have to do it relative to corporations, so all that’s left are joint ventures, limited partnerships and general partnerships, roughly 1,500 operations throughout the United States. There we said the default position is one actively engaged manager.

Now if you’ve got a complex or a large operation, you might be able to make the case, if you were to adequately document that case, to have more than one, but you can’t have any more than three. And I think that’s a reflection of the flexibility that we need relative to the nature of agriculture generally, but also tightening up what was a very significant loophole where we had ten, 15, 20 different people saying because I was on a conference call and made a decision to buy this or that, or to plant this or that, I’m somehow actively engaged. We want to get it back to a system that we can defend.

Mr. Adams: We’re almost out of time. Coexistence. Can we achieve that, do you think, in agriculture?

Sec. Vilsack: I think we have to. Now I may be the only person in America that believes that, but look, GMOs are here to stay. We need them if we’re going to feed the world. Organic is a high value proposition. If we want young people to get engaged in this business and be able to do it from scratch, organic is a way to do it without having to buy 1,000 acres and have the capital costs associated with it. So to me coexistence is about making sure that all options are on the table for folks.

Mr. Adams: Very good. So we watch this week for any announcements on the deadline for the signup, but right now you feel pretty good about the way it’s going.

Sec. Vilsack: Absolutely.

Mr. Adams: Very good. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Sec. Vilsack: Thanks, Mike.

Mr. Adams: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, as we wrap up our broadcast here at USDA.

[End of recording.]