NASDA hosts Ag Secretary Vilsack at annual meeting

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture recently held its 2022 annual meeting in Saratoga Springs, New York. U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke during the group’s plenary session.

NASDA is a nonpartisan, nonprofit association that represents the elected and appointed commissioners, secretaries, and directors of the departments of agriculture in all 50 states and four U.S. territories. NASDA grows and enhances American agriculture through policy, partnerships and public engagement.

Vilsack said at USDA it’s harvest season of sorts and has been working for the last year and a half on a number of issues and challenges facing agriculture and rural America.

One of those issues resulted in the launch of the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities, which focuses on agriculture and forestry products that are developed as a result of climate smart practices.

“Frankly, when we put the billion dollars out and challenged U.S. agriculture, we weren’t sure what the response would be,” he said. “But we were absolutely blown away by the response—over 1,000 applications, over $20 billion in requests.”

Vilsack said they looked at a large grant pool of about 450 applications. Seventy awards shared a piece of $2.8 billion. Fifteen projects involving fruits, vegetables and specialty crops, 13 involving beef, pork and other livestock, 11 corn and soybeans, nine dairy projects, five timber and forest projects, four rice projects, three peanuts and cotton, two energy and three energy into hemp were funded.

He expects and anticipates nearly 50,000 farmers, ranchers and producers to participate in the projects with more than 25,000 acres to be engaged and involved in these activities.

USDA will also have the ability to verify, quantify, measure and certify the results—relying on more than 50 universities, land grant universities, historic black colleges and universities, minority serving institutions, Hispanic serving institutions, tribal colleges across the board.

“All 50 states are engaged and virtually all commodities,” he said. “And the result will be, we believe at least 50 million metric ton reduction of co2 equivalent.”

Together with all the other activities that USDA is undertaking, they’ll be working toward agriculture meeting its goal under the Paris Agreement. Decisions for small grants will take place sometime around the first part of November.

“I think the most important lesson that we learned from this was before we started this process, we went out and listened,” he said. “We listened to farmers and ranchers and producers and they said, ‘Look, here’s how this needs to work. It needs to be pilot. It needs to be voluntary. It needs to understand the important role of incentives, and it needs to be market driven.’”

Vilsack hopes to learn from the experience and later funnel and transition the information into how they administer conservation programs with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. It’s the largest single investment in conservation since the Dust Bowl.

“It’s an exciting opportunity and I think it’s going to it’s going to create new revenue streams for farmers,” he said. “It’s going to allow agriculture to be part of the solution. It’s going to allow agriculture to essentially jettison, if you will, to the front of the pack in terms of our country’s response to the climate challenge.”

More efforts to help meat outlets

There are efforts to improve meat processing opportunities underway as well, and Vilsack is excited to see the progress being made in this area.

“As you know, we’ve really focused a lot on competition and part of that competition is expanding opportunities for processing,” he said. “Already 266 facilities across the United States have received over $53 million in assistance from the USDA to be able to expand their capacity to market beyond their individual state border.”

Reduced inspection fees were approved for 2,600 small or very small facilities to help them remain open and profitable.

“We focused on the mid supply chain, knowing that there’s a need for warehousing and cold storage and mobile slaughter units,” Vilsack said. “We’ve already provided three loan guarantees over $37 million. There are 18 applications in the queue.”

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He anticipates and expects there to be more than $100 million set aside for those applications.

There have also been significant investments in local and regional food systems and a food system transformation effort, which USDA announced recently—the establishment of regional food business centers. These will be areas around the country dedicated to helping others who are interested in establishing local regional food systems.

At NASDA Vilsack announced because of the concerning cost of fertilizer, several weeks ago USDA instituted their nutrient management initiative under the NRCS program.

“(We’re) allocating $40 million to encourage better understanding on the part of producers of how best to utilize the nutrients that they have,” he said.

Vilsack said there have been studies that suggest and indicate that there’s possibly between 25% and 30% of acres currently fertilized that may not require as much or any fertilizer.

In closing

During his speech Vilsack had the opportunity to answer questions from state directors, commissioners and secretaries as well as visit with the students and others attending.

“It’s just exciting to see how many young people are interested in agriculture. How many understand and appreciate that probably one of the most innovative if not the most innovative industry in the country is one that you wouldn’t normally expect,” he said. “If you went out on the street here in Saratoga Springs and you basically interviewed folks walking down the street and said, ‘What do you think the most innovative business and occupation is in this country?’ I doubt that they would list agriculture in the top five.”

Agriculture is indeed one “if not the most” innovative business and industry in the country, and Vilsack hopes young people can appreciate that agriculture is happening everywhere.

Prior to speaking at NASDA Vilsack wasn’t sure about how many farms were in New York state, however, some of the young people he interacted with knew that answer—600 farms in NY and 300 of which are food producing in New York City.

“They know agriculture is happening,” he said. “They know that agriculture is part of the solution. They’re not the problem. They know that agriculture is a place where they can make a difference, a significant difference and they are excited to be to be part of it.”

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].