4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
WASHINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack believes migration has to be a part of the Farm Bill discussions that will happen this spring and summer. What migration?
The next generation moving off the farm, immigration reform and more dramatic weather patterns are all factors that could cause agricultural migration, he explained.
Vilsack spoke with reporters at the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting on Monday at the Cosmos Club in Washington.
“There are young people that are migrating out of rural areas and young people migrating out of farm families,” he said.
The former Iowa governor said we need to show young people the employment and economic opportunities if they want to stay in rural America.
Earlier in the day, he spoke to a group of 4-H members visiting Washington about the career opportunities available in rural communities.
Immigration is being hotly debated in Congress, and Vilsack said if it doesn’t get resolved, America runs the risk of having portions of its agricultural operation migrating to other countries.
He said there are 1.1 million people working in agriculture, and up to half of this workforce could be undocumented immigrants.
“It’s a complicated issue,” he said, but a process needs to be developed for these workers to work in the United States legally and eventually become citizens.
Vilsack said there are agricultural leaders skeptical about a pathway to citizenship, not because they don’t believe there should be one but because of the failings of the 1986 process, which caused agricultural labor disruptions.
He said farmers are trying to do the “right thing in a broken system,” and the system has to get fixed.
Vilsack said he believes the USDA can provide assistance to the Department of Labor with implementation a new program because of its county-level footprint in rural communities.
“People need to know what the risk is here,” he said. “There is a real challenge and risk to aspects of agriculture. Are we going to import workers or are we going to import food? It’s as much about food security in the long term as it is about access to workers.”
Weather also could change the country’s farming system. In addition to warmer weather in the past decade, which could change where crops are grown, Vilsack talked about the dramatic weather that has beset the country, such as the drought that decimated crops last year and the floods that struck other parts of the country.
“This is a long, long-range problem, but it’s one that we need to be paying attention to,” he said.
USDA continues to look for innovative tools to help farmers adapt to a changing environment. Topics include using less water for growing crops, improving water storage areas, multicropping strategies and new marketing opportunities.
Vilsack also talked about reducing greenhouse gasses. USDA has renewed its memorandum of understanding with the dairy industry to look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint from dairy farms. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is stepping up its monitoring for potential invasive pests. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has been charged with using its programs to develop new water-saving technologies.
However, the effort goes beyond the farm to include food waste. Vilsack said the U.S. could reduce its greenhouse gas emission levels by 2 percent, just by eliminating food waste.
“The challenge for us is about 50 percent of the food does not get to the plate in developing countries because of poor storage,” he said. “In developed countries, it’s the amount of waste once food gets to the plate.”
Vilsack also talked about sequestration, which has been something the USDA has been working on for more than two years.
“We are looking at every possible way to improve efficiencies,” he said.
That has resulted in more than $700,000 in savings, he said, but it does not balance the books, so there will be fewer farm loans, conservation practices and challenges with rental assistance this fall.
In the past couple of months, USDA has looked at the possibility of furloughing employees and eliminating some National Agricultural Statistics Service reports as money-saving measures.
“The budget continues to be a challenge,” Vilsack said, pointing out that USDA has lost $1 billion in annual funding since he became secretary.
Most people look at his department’s overall budget, but don’t realize that most of the programs are mandatory programs, such as food stamps, he said.
This has required Vilsack to look for innovative solutions to meet the needs of rural America with a smaller budget, and he said he has been searching for new partners to help extend the reach.
“Instead of bemoaning all of this, let’s be creative,” he said, and look for alternative solutions.