Vilsack talks drought, farm bill in Omaha

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October 9th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture was in Omaha today. Tom Vilsack called on Congress to renew the stalled farm bill, while he met with officials to discuss the impact of a lingering drought in the Midwest.

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Flanked by officials from South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska, Tom Vilsack told reporters at a morning press conference that his department is here to “learn and listen.” Vilsack was in Omaha for the first of a series of regional meetings intended to gauge the needs of communities and farmers impacted by one of the most severe droughts in recent history.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, met with Midwestern officials for a day-long agriculture conference in Omaha Tuesday. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Vilsack said the drought has a “rippling effect” on industries like tourism and others dependent on agriculture. “Agriculture is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in the economy,” Vilsack said. “So if producers have less to produce then that means less will be packaged and processed and trucked and shipped, how does that impact and affect those businesses, those employees, the workload? And what does that do to communities that are reliant on a prosperous economy?”

Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture may be able to help communities with low-cost loans and grants as well as through technical assistance and by easing regulations. But he said the department’s ability to help is restricted by a farm bill that’s been stalled in Congress for months. “How do you as a producer in the midst of drought, potentially a multi-year drought, how do you go to your banker and basically convince them to provide you the credit to put a crop in the ground?” he said, “or to continue your operation if you don’t know what the safety net is going to be?”

“You can’t tell the banker that because you don’t know,” he continued. “That creates I think a little angst on the part of the banker and reluctance for some operators to get the credit they need.”

Much of Nebraska continues to suffer extreme to exceptional drought conditions. (U.S. Drought Monitor as of Oct. 2 provided by University of Nebraska-Lincoln.)

Vilsack said the livestock industry has been particularly hard hit and added he’s “deeply concerned” about the dairy industry, which relies on an insurance program (MILC) that expired October 1st and has yet to be renewed. But Vilsack also said there’s reason to be optimistic. He said food prices will likely not go up as much as initially feared because yields are higher than expected. “Ironically, right now we’re faced in some cases with potential surpluses,” he said, “because there’s been liquidation that’s taken place on an accelerated basis.”

“So consumers may get the benefit of that in the short-term,” he added. “In the long-term, when there are shortages, obviously consumers will be impacted. But the impact of that on food inflation, if you will, is not as significant as you might think.”

Vilsack said farmers have embraced new drought-resistant technology and conservation methods which have made them more resilient. He was joined by professors from the University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension Program, and he gave a nod to their work, saying continued investment in agriculture research is critical to weathering future natural disasters. Vilsack heads next to Colorado and will continue on to Arkansas and, finally, Ohio.

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