Judging from the two hours of Senate confirmation hearings I watched this morning, Vilsack will take the office of Secretary of Agriculture on January 20th. Before beginning their questioning, the ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee congratulated Vilsack on his nomination and expressed their eagerness to work with him. When the questioning finally began, there were a couple highlights that demonstrated that the Ag committee and Vilsack have some good ideas they'd like to see through. And then there was a moment when a collective groan was heard from the members of our staff who were listening to the hearing... but we'll get to that.
The chairman of the Senate Ag Committee is Democrat Tom Harkin from Iowa, a strong Vilsack supporter. His first question linked the issue of agriculture with healthcare reform. Vilsack responded in a thoughtful way about the progress made in the 2008 Farm Bill, which included support for fruits and vegetables for the first time. Vilsack pointed out that many schools are offering fresh produce to schoolchildren but that every school should be doing it and it is the job of the USDA to help make that happen. Specifically, Vilsack said his USDA would work aggressively to link schools to local producers of fruits and vegetables. In response, Harkin deplored the poor quality of foods available in some schools, where many children eat a lunch of soda and candy from vending machines. Harkin then moved on to a question about the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), stressing that every farmer should have access to the program. Vilsack answered by saying that he would have to get into the job first before determining the issues with CSP (understanding the barriers and limitations of the program) but agreed it is an important program for farmers and the environment alike. Harkin followed up by saying that the CSP is an important opportunity for farmers but that the economic stimulus package currently in the works will also help farmers. Farm Aid anxiously looks forward to seeing what the stimulus package offers to farmers and rural residents; in fact our board advocated for a farm stimulus back when the original bailout was being considered.
Questions from other senators explored issues of increasing the demand for ethanol, child hunger, the problems dairy farmers are currently facing with product pricing, farm payment limitations, crop insurance, civil rights, organics and the need to uphold the organic standards, and broadband internet access and development in rural areas. And then came the zinger that had those of us at Farm Aid seething: Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas went on at length about "production agriculture" and the real farmers who are actually producing our food, as opposed to what he called the "small family farmer," who "with all due respect" is a "retired gentleman farmer from VT whose wife is employed as a stockbroker downtown and who has 40 acres, a pond, and an orchard of organic apples." Roberts stressed that Vilsack's job would be to serve those real producers (and not the small family farmers of VT, evidently). Vilsack responded eloquently that one of the strengths of our agriculture is its diversity, not just geographically but also in terms of all the kinds of agriculture we do here in the US. He also pointed out that during his stint as an agriculture attorney during the farm crisis of the 80s, he got to know many farmers and that their job is much more than producing food, but also encompasses "family, faith, community, hard work."
We at Farm Aid would have liked to have been present to point out that it is the small, diversified, family farms who helped to build this country and who make up the family farm food system that so many eaters are demanding right now. We need organic apples as much as we need corn and soy and it isn't just the huge commodity farms that should be represented in our national farm policy--our agriculture policy needs to reflect the diversity of our agriculture. We look forward to working with Vilsack to make that vision a reality.