Greg Jaffe and Juliet Eilperin reported on the front page of today’s Washington Post that, “Late last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack strode into the Oval Office to tell President Obama that he wanted to resign.
“‘Mr. President,’ he said, ‘I think it’s time to go.’
“Vilsack had survived nearly eight years in Washington as Obama’s model Cabinet secretary — a disciplined and efficient technocrat who understood the inner workings of his department, worked well with lawmakers and did not cause trouble for the White House.”
The Post writers stated that, “Lately, though, that approach did not seem to be enough to fix the problems he was seeing in the country. Vilsack was frustrated with a culture in Washington that too often ignored rural America’s struggles and dismissed its virtues. ‘I just sometimes think rural America is a forgotten place,’ he often said.”
“Vilsack sometimes felt forgotten, too. He ran a sprawling bureaucracy with 93,000 employees and a $150 billion budget, but the number of consequential issues crossing his desk had dwindled. ‘There are days when I have literally nothing to do,’ he recalled thinking as he weighed his decision to quit.
“The Oval Office conversation would change the trajectory of Vilsack’s career and affect him personally in ways that he could not have predicted. Obama asked him to oversee the administration’s response to the opioid crisis that was ravaging rural America.”
Today’s article noted that, “The new assignment would force Vilsack to confront not only the immediate drug crisis in the country but also the frustrations and feelings of economic hopelessness that had taken root and allowed the epidemic to flourish.
“Each morning Vilsack’s staff passed him statistics that tracked the administration’s top priorities: its push to train physicians on the risks of opioid addiction; the latest on its effort to get the overdose reversal drug naloxone out to more communities; the status of federal grants earmarked for struggling communities.”
The Post article added that, “[Sec. Vilsack] knew that he did not have money for anything ambitious. An urgent request from the White House earlier this year for $1.1 billion to battle the opioid epidemic was stalled in Congress. His department’s discretionary budget, which he could use to fund clinics, was $2 billion less than it had been in 2010.
“So Vilsack channeled his energy into little things: A police officer he had met complained that prices of naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, had tripled since January to nearly $160 per dose, making it too costly for many rural police and fire departments. Vilsack promised to raise the issue with the White House.”
“But, he was most excited about a four-state pilot program he was developing to use USDA grants and foreclosed properties to create transitional housing for people in treatment,” the article said.
Jaffe and Eilperin pointed out that, “Vilsack knew that the past 15 years had hit rural America especially hard. Rural child poverty rates had begun climbing in 2003, peaking at levels last seen in the 1960s. Only in the past few years had they begun to edge back down. Rural Americans were older, more likely to be obese, less likely to go to college and more likely to become pregnant in their teenage years than people in the rest of the country. And now the opioid crisis.”
The Post article stated that, “[Sec. Vilsack’s] frustration was with the rest of the country — the media, Congress and the private sector — which he felt had ignored the struggles and contributions of a region that produced most of the country’s food and, during 15 years of war, had disproportionately filled the ranks of its military.”
And today’s article also indicated that, “Privately, [Sec. Vilsack] let his anger and frustration with Washington show. He was sensitive to the smallest slights directed at rural America or his record. Denis McDonough, the president’s chief of staff, praised Vilsack’s effectiveness even as he referred to him as the ‘cranky’ Cabinet secretary.
“‘Maybe I have been here too long,’ Vilsack grumbled. He gazed up at his sprawling Beaux-Arts style office with its gold filigree columns, massive windows and stunning views of the Mall.
“‘I have to be cranky,’ he continued, ‘because people don’t pay attention to this part of the country.'”
The DTN article went on to point out that, “[NFU President Roger] Johnson added that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and House Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have indicated support for writing the next farm bill early.”
Also in his DTN article, Mr. Clayton provided executive branch perspective on the ag/rural economy from Sec. Vilsack, who “reminded NFU members that farm income levels over the past five years have been some of the best in recent history. ‘They needed to understand when they talk about tough times, there are a whole lot of people out there who are not doing as well as many farm families are doing,’ Vilsack said.
“The secretary said he told NFU members to consider where they stand relative to the average American family, Vilsack said. The average American farm family has a median income of about $76,282, according to USDA, which is $19,782 higher than average U.S. household.”
In a conference call last week with agricultural reporters, Sec. Vilsack made similar points and noted that, “Over that five-year period we have seen a relatively strong foundation to the agricultural economy. We see continued low debt to equity ratios, notwithstanding the fact that the prices are a little low right now. I think farmers, foundationally, are in good shape to withstand the low commodity prices of today.”
During the conference call, Sec. Vilsack expounded on the fact that overall “farm household” income, which includes “off-farm” income, as well as “farm income,” is significantly above national averages. This is primarily due to the fact that “off farm” income in farm households remains strong. Sec. Vilsack noted that what is done in the policy area of rural development is important because it helps to strengthen “off farm” income opportunities.”
With this background in mind, Quoctrung Bui reported yesterday at The New York Times Online (“Actually, Income in Rural America Is Growing, Too“) that, “Median household incomes in rural America actually grew 3.4 percent in 2015, according to policy experts who study the census numbers very closely.”
Although the primary focus of the Times’ article is a detailed explanation of the way in which the Census Bureau defines, and derives, statistical results for “rural” and “urban” areas; the article concluded by stating that, “In many cases, data further complicates our view of the world, making things murkier instead of clearer. By contrast, the sharp differences in rural and urban income growth suggested by the C.P.S. [Current Population Survey] felt like a gift from the statistics gods.
“But our loss is clearly the American people’s gain, because it shows that the recovery is even more broadly shared than we thought.”
Donnelle Eller and Jennifer Jacobs reported on the front page of Sunday’s Des Moines Register that, “Nine GOP White House contenders did their best to sound more compelling and better-versed on farm-related matters than their competitors Saturday as they were quizzed during an unusual showcase of agriculture policy on the presidential campaign trail.”
The Register writers explained that, “Unlike the raucous, free-wheeling political rock concert that was the freedom summit, which was hosted by conservative Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King, [moderator and pork and ethanol entrepreneur Bruce Rastetter], a mainstream Republican, kept tighter control on the conversation. He staged a living-room-like setting with leather chairs and a vase of tulips and conducted interview-style question-and-answer sessions on renewable fuels, the wind energy production tax credit, normalizing trade with Cuba, biotechnology, illegal immigration, water pollution from farm runoff and other topics.
“The mood in the crowd of about 900 was warm but mostly subdued as they heard from, in order: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New York Gov. George Pataki and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Despite the free tickets and free lunch, a third of the seats were empty by afternoon.”
Sunday’s article noted that, “The Republicans’ stances differed little except on the Renewable Fuel Standard, a federal mandate that outlines how much ethanol and biodiesel must be blended annually into the country’s fuel supply. Most said they understand and accept the need for the mandate, at least until it can be phased out. Santorum and Huckabee in particular passionately defended it.
“But Pataki expressed vocal opposition to the RFS, as did Cruz, whose answers were met with applause.”
An update yesterday from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis stated that, “Farm incomes fell from April through June, according to results of the Minneapolis Fed’s second-quarter (July) agricultural credit conditions survey. Capital spending decreased, while household spending held roughly steady, lenders responding to the survey indicated. Falling incomes pushed the rate of loan repayment down slightly, while renewals and extensions increased, though most lenders reported that both were flat. Respondents noted further signs that cropland values were moderating, with prices falling in some areas, though the volume of land sales appears to have decreased. The third-quarter outlook is for continued contraction, with survey respondents predicting further decreases in income, capital expenditure and household spending.”
Yesterday’s update added that, “Recent quarterly surveys have indicated that land prices have moderated following a multiyear period of strong growth, and the second-quarter results continue this trend; values decreased in some cases, along with cash rents. The average value for nonirrigated cropland in the district fell by almost 2 percent from a year earlier, according to survey respondents. Irrigated land fell slightly more (between 2 percent and 3 percent), while ranchland values increased 4 percent, likely owing to strong livestock and dairy prices. The district average cash rent for nonirrigated land fell 6 percent from a year ago, more than the decrease in value. Rents for irrigated land decreased 4 percent, while ranchland rents, which had continued growing in recent quarters, fell by nearly 2 percent.”
The Minneapolis Fed update also noted that, “Not surprisingly, expectations are slightly pessimistic, on balance. Across the district, 52 percent of lenders predicted that farm income will decrease in the third quarter of 2014, compared with 12 percent forecasting increases.”
Paul Sonne and Anton Troianovski reported in today’s Wall Street Journal that, “Russia banned imports of a wide range of U.S. and European foods on Thursday in response to Western sanctions, confronting Russians with a type of economic isolation largely unseen since the Soviet era.
“Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev outlined the products subject to the one-year ban—beef, pork, poultry, fish, fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk and other dairy products from the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Norway and Australia—in a radical response to penalties imposed on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.”
Damian Paletta and Josh Zumbrun reported earlier this week at the Washington Wire Blog (Wall Street Journal) that, “The number of Americans receiving food stamps is now falling at a faster clip, with more than 1.2 million people moving out of the program between October and February, according to federal data.
“As of February, the most recent data available, 46.2 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. That’s the lowest level since August 2011 and down from the March 2013 peak of 47.7 million people. The $5.8 billion in benefits paid out in February was the lowest level since at least 2010 [related graph].”
The update added that, “SNAP isn’t the only government-assistance program where persistent growth appears to have slowed. The number of people collecting benefits under a supplemental nutritional program for Women, Infants, and Children [WIC] fell to 8.1 million in February, the lowest level in several years.”
“The bill, dubbed the ‘Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act,’ was drafted by U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo and is aimed at overriding bills in about two dozen states that would require foods made with genetically engineered crops to be labeled as such.
“The bill specifically prohibits any mandatory labeling of foods developed using bioengineering.”
The Wall Street Journal provided interesting coverage of recent U.S. Census data relating to Rural population declines— and growth. While some areas of the Midwest are experiencing population declines, areas in the Great Plains, such as North Dakota and Texas have seen populations rise.
In a recent interview on KTIV-TV (Sioux City, Iowa), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa Governor, talked about presidential politics on the eve of second presidential debate. It was noted that Sec. Vilsack was not speaking as a government official in the interview, but on behalf of the “Obama for America Campaign.”
A video replay of the interview is available here:
Recall that GOP Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney addressed farm policy issues in Iowa last week, a recap of Gov. Romney’s presentation is available here.
A recent column by Sec. Vilsack on rural and agriculture issues can be found here, while Iowa State Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey indicated in a recent column that Gov. Romney was best for rural America.
David Shepardson reported yesterday at The Detroit News Online that, “Sen. Debbie Stabenow says she is optimistic Congress will pass disaster assistance for farmers facing a record drought if the House doesn’t approve a farm bill.
“The Lansing Democrat and chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee said she’s been working during the congressional recess to try to get the House to act on farm reform legislation.”
From The Wall Street Journal: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack tells attendees at the Democratic National Convention how much work President Barack Obama has done for rural families, farmers, and small business owners.
Carol E. Lee provided a brief update in today’s Wall Street Journal regarding President Obama’s three day trip to Iowa last week. [Illustration from today’s Wall Street Journal].
Ms. Lee pointed out that, “In his speeches, he attacked his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, on policy matters, including a few of local concern: He stood in a field of windmills to accuse Mr. Romney of opposing alternative energy sources and, at a family farm, he blamed Republicans for stalling aid to those struggling in the drought. (Mr. Romney has said that wind energy should compete with other energy sources in the marketplace, without the tax credit. Republicans say a GOP measure on drought relief was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.)
“But it was Mr. Obama’s informal stops along the way—including the Iowa State Fair and a bar where he bought beers for 10 patrons—that the president’s advisers hoped would be devoured by local news outlets. Mr. Obama opened his wallet to buy snow cones for a pair of young kids in Denison, announcing, ‘It’s the president’s treat.'”
Today’s Journal article added that, “Republicans also paid attention to the state, sending Paul Ryan to Iowa for his first solo appearance after joining the Republican ticket as the vice- presidential candidate. Mr. Ryan, too, hit the state fair, though as a fitness buff, he bypassed the fried food. It will be no surprise if the GOP ticket returns to the state soon.”
More specifically on the energy issue, The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted today that, “Mr. Obama’s plan to eliminate oil and gas subsidies would lower the budget deficit by less than $3 billion a year, but creating a true level playing field in energy, and allowing markets to determine which energy sources are used, would save $37 billion. That’s an energy plan that makes sense.”
The Washington Post editorial board pointed out on Friday that, “Mr. Obama is also promising Iowans an extended tax credit for wind-energy production, which expires at the end of this year but to date has helped Iowa generate 20 percent of its electricity from that source. Not incidentally, Iowa farmers get $11 million a year renting their land to windmill operators. Mr. Obama argues that this is job-creating clean energy, and he is hardly alone in that. Supposedly fiscally conservative, free-market Republicans such as Rep. Steve King of Iowa tout the tax credit, which costs the Treasury well over $1 billion a year. Of course, that money might have created even more jobs elsewhere, or saved more carbon emissions, if the government did not steer it into Iowa wind farms.
“Republican challenger Mitt Romney deserves credit for opposing an extension to the wind subsidy, a position that could hurt him in Iowa and in Colorado, another windy swing state.”
And on the drought / Farm Bill issue, the Post opined that, “Actually, almost nothing in the farm bill would affect drought-stricken farms one way or the other. About 80 percent of the bill’s nearly $1 trillion price tag (over 10 years) reflects the cost of food stamps, an essential part of the safety net. The rest is largely a grab bag of subsidies for producers, with the biggest benefits for the largest farms, i.e., those least vulnerable to drought and other risks. Existing law already provides subsidized crop insurance for more than 80 percent of the nation’s farmland; many dairy farms, too, enjoy subsidized insurance against rising feed costs.
“There are, indeed, modest reforms in the bill; it eliminates costly and wasteful ‘direct payments‘ but offsets that by expanding crop insurance subsidies. The bill would protect producers so much that they might lose their incentive to use land prudently, thus raising the potential for losses in the next drought. To really help livestock farms, which are most hurt by rising corn prices, Mr. Obama should heed elected officials in both parties — including Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) of Maryland — who are asking his administration to waive ethanol mandates so that more grain would be available for animal feed.”