USDA holds 2023 Agricultural Outlook Forum, Vilsack keynotes

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently opened the 99th meeting of the Agricultural Outlook Forum.

Vilsack called right now a pivotal moment in American agriculture.

“In my lifetime, the productivity of American farmers is improved by 17 times. It’s truly a remarkable story of innovation,” he said. “So it makes sense that the topic of this particular outlook form would be seeds of growth, through innovation, a continuation of that tradition.”

American farmers’ productivity has been unmatched. As Americans became more food secure as a nation, exports increased to the rest of the world, and today agriculture depends on those exports. Vilsack can appreciate the fact there’s been records set in terms of exports and expects more to come as there’s indications of it being another strong year for exports.

In recent times, challenges for agriculture include the impact of the pandemic on the overall economy, the Ukraine invasion, supply chain issues and input costs, and the challenges of a changing climate.

“What we learned from this experience of these of these challenges was that American agriculture was extraordinarily efficient and our food system was amazingly efficient. But it wasn’t as resilient as we needed to be,” Vilsack said. “We rebounded from all of these conflicts and challenges and over the last two years, we’ve enjoyed record farm income.”

An important stat

Vilsack believes the income levels should be better than historical averages, but who has benefited from those records?

“We know that nearly 50% of our farmers over the course of the last several years, according to the IRS, have had negative farm income,” he said. “They didn’t make money from their farming operation. We know that nearly another 40% of our farmers made money but the majority of what they made for their family didn’t come from farming that came from off-farm income.”

Even while there was record income, those large commercial operations still did very well because they’d invested a lot of time and energy into producing an extraordinary crop—but the other 90% still struggle.

“So that’s why I think we’re at a pivotal moment. Because we have to ask ourselves a serious question about whether we want a system that continues to see further consolidation and the impact that that has on farmers and rural communities or whether we’re innovative enough to figure out a new way, a different way and expanded opportunity.”

Vilsack said there’s other ways to push back on what traditionally happens in industry in this country. He thinks there are ways to create innovative approaches to the future, understanding it’s not just “growing crops and selling them or raising livestock and selling them or the product from them, or government payments.”

Climate smart practices, sustainability, and other things can reward those in agriculture, Vilsack believes. USDA has 141 projects that are funding and providing resources to lessen risk for farmers.

“From embracing climate smart practices, and then linking them to markets that value those climate smart practices and rewarding them,” he said. “That’s a new opportunity. It’s similar to what we do with organic, and this administration is putting more resources and allowing more farmers to transition.”

Having these opportunities allows for new income sources for farmers.

Vilsack said the president has instructed USDA to expand market opportunities by investment in the processing. Recently additional investments for new and expanded processing opportunities for new and expanded processing capacity were funded by the American Rescue Plan.

“This is nearly 300 opportunities that we’ve currently invested in and we’re not stopping,” he said. “There’ll be more investments for expanded processing capacity. And we’ll also figure out a way to utilize resources from the American Rescue Plan, not only to focus on beef and pork, and poultry, but also to expand to all opportunities for additional commodities for additional processing for what we refer to as competitive foods and opportunity for specialty crops that require additional processing opportunity.”

Reusing waste products

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

New investments in a bio-based economy will over time provide the opportunity to create from agricultural waste—chemicals, fabrics, fiber, fuel, and energy.

Vilsack said there will need to be 36 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel that can be produced from agricultural waste and from woody biomass.

It’s not just about renewable energy or just about fuel—it’s about local and regional food systems and the ability to not have to depend on commodity-based markets that reward size and technology or the ability to be large, but the opportunity to negotiate their own prices, to create local and regional food systems of their own.

It’ll help local kids understand and appreciate where their food comes from, better connecting them to farmers and ranchers, better soil health, purer water quality and a stronger sense of community and connection.

The farm bill reauthorization is also an extraordinary opportunity “to say to the farming community, it’s not just get big, it’s diversity,” he said.

“It’s creating multiple profit centers in your farming operation,” he said. “It’s technical assistance and financial assistance and help that will allow you to link to your local market, allow you to take advantage of expanded processing, that will allow you to convert that agricultural waste that, in some cases, is over-applied on land to now be directed to a manufacturing processing facility located just down the road that’s creating a material, a fabric, a fiber, a chemical, a fuel—that energy source.”

Those are some of the reasons why Vilsack is excited for the future and sees a bright, optimistic outlook.

“I get it, I know there are challenges out there, I absolutely understand,” he said. “I’m out there, I’m talking to farmers. I understand and appreciate, but I also know that if we do this right, if we continue to invest in these multiple opportunities for farmers to profit, then, whether you’re large or small or mid-sized, whatever your community is, you’ll be able to provide something to your country and I know that farmers want to hear that.”

For him, the seeds of innovation are all about creating new opportunities.

“This is an exciting time. This is a time of great opportunity. A time of significant open in my view,” he said. “For me, the seeds of innovation are all about creating these new opportunities. The opportunity for growth is all about these opportunities. And I ask all of you to join us in making this happen. Because our farmers need it. And our country depends on it.”

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