U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Talks Trade, Meatpacking & Fertilizer

Feb. 11, 2022, 6:30 a.m. ·

Man wearing a dark suit, tie and white shirt in front of a curtain gesturing with his right arm.
A former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack is the longest-serving secretary of agriculture in decades. (Photo by Amy Mayer, Harvest Public Media)

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Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, discussed a number of pressing agriculture issues and new programs on Nebraska Public Media's "Speaking of Nebraska" recently.

Dennis Kellogg, Nebraska Public Media News: Nebraska, as you know, is a beef state and meatpacking is an important part of that cycle. But four companies control 85% of that particular market. Your administration recently launched a new online tool for farmers and ranchers to report unfair and anti-competitive practices. We also have Sen. Deb Fischer and Sen. Chuck Grassley dealing with the pricing side we're seeing with the market. What do you think it's going to take, and is it a priority to restore that balance in those beef markets?

Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: Well, it absolutely is a priority – for many reasons. First and foremost, to make sure that our farmers and ranchers who are working incredibly hard to produce that beef are adequately and fairly compensated. It's also important for consumers to be able to have choice and know that when they go into the grocery store that they're able to purchase a product that is supporting the local and regional economy. And I think it's also important from an economic development and jobs perspective. the ability to produce more processing capacity will mean more rural jobs. And, finally, I think we learned during the pandemic of the necessity of our food system, not only to be efficient, but also to be resilient.

Dennis Kellogg: I want to get your thoughts on a new processing plant that's under development in western Nebraska in North Platte. The cattlemen of that area have banded together and are a few years away from processing 1,500 cattle a day. Do you think Nebraska and the rest of the country need more of these small processing plants?

Tom Vilsack: We do, and I think the program that we've announced – later this month we'll provide more specifics on it – I think we'll address some of the capital challenges that many of these facilities face as they try to get up and going. We believe there is an opportunity for very small and mid-sized operations to dot the landscape, to provide those jobs to provide more market opportunities and competition – more choice for consumers. And we're anxious to see as this grant program and loan program is unfolded. The interest, we think, there are already shovel ready projects, perhaps similar to the one that you mentioned, that could use a little bit of a boost, and we're prepared to provide that soon.

Dennis Kellogg: A couple of months ago, we spoke with former Nebraska governor and also senator and agriculture secretary Mike Johanns, and we asked him about trade in the Biden administration. His comment was, that he wished he was wrong, but he wasn't confident trade would be at the top of the agenda for this administration. Obviously, former Sec. Johanns is a Republican as well, we should point out, but what would you say to former Sec. Johanns about the priority of trade in this administration?

Tom Vilsack: Well, Mike is a good friend. And the first thing I would point out to him is that during the Obama administration an agriculture export record was set. That stood until this year, when in the Biden administration, we set yet another record of agricultural exports, and the current year is projected to break that record yet again. So, first and foremost, we're seeing record exports. Secondly, it's important when we talk about trade that we create within the American public an understanding on a trusting relationship about trade. I think many Americans think that trade works against America and not for America. So it's important to reestablish that trust. How do we do that? By enforcement. That's why we successfully took Canada to task under the USMCA for not living up to that trade agreement's responsibilities with reference to dairy.

Dennis Kellogg: A lot of Nebraska farmers are keeping their eye on fertilizer prices. A Texas A&M study showed those could jump by as much as 80% this year. Is there anything that you can do and how closely are you watching those fertilizer prices?

Tom Vilsack: Well, it's a difficult situation no doubt for farmers. What we can do at USDA, is make sure that farmers are equipped with the ability to make the right decisions about the level and amount of fertilizer they need. We continue to invest in research in sensor technology, so that farmers can better understand, with more precision, how much fertilizer is needed. I was recently at Iowa State University, talking to some scientists there that are developing a sensor for corn. And they tell me that, based on their preliminary research, that as much as 30% of our corn acres may not require any fertilizer at all. So I think it's important for us to continue to invest in that type of research.

Dennis Kellogg: I want to ask you about a major announcement from the USDA involving climate smart ag products. You're setting aside about a billion dollars for public and private entities to apply for those funds. Why such a huge investment in this particular area?

Tom Vilsack: Well, I think it's important for American agriculture to provide a leadership opportunity for farmers and ranchers to meet the market where it is and where it is headed. Whether it's the domestic food industry or whether it's exports, there is a growing demand for sustainably-produced agricultural commodities, and we want to make sure that farmers in the U.S. and ranchers in the U.S. and forested landowners in the U.S. are equipped to meet that demand where it is and to lead that effort.

Editor's note: This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Watch the full interview: