Vilsack: ‘Ag is Cool Again’

Agriculture Secretary visits Ohio State University to tout Obama’s new jobs plan.

Farm income is at record levels and innovation in the countryside is to thank. Today Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack toured a lab at The Ohio State University to see firsthand how innovative research is helping start-up companies produce new biobased products and create jobs in Ohio.

In comments to researchers, Vilsack noted that new products, such as those in the biobased segment, are “putting American back into creating and innovating” and creating another off-shoot for agriculture to thrive.

“It is an exciting future for agriculture. Ag is cool again,” he added, noting that today’s environment provides so much opportunity for innovation.

When Vilsack was asked how President Obama would pay for the $450 billion in stimulus designed as a “short-term jolt” to get the economy back on track, Vilsack didn’t give a very straight answer. (Which didn’t really surprise me!)

He did say USDA is already dealing with a 10% reduction in its budget and already looking at more effective ways to partner with private foundations and leverage the resources to deal with challenging budget times.

He also projected another 8-13% in reductions will come down with the next round of appropriation cuts. “That will be difficult, but we will do it,” he said.

The way will be to spend less, and invest more wisely. Farmers have a “formula that works” he added in noting that farmers have reduced reliance on debt and offer one of the few positive trade balances in the U.S. economy due to increased productivity and strong exports.

As for the next farm bill shaping up in these tight economic times, Vilsack said this farm bill will be different than farm bills of the past. “Policy is usually the driver of resources. This year the resources will be the driver of the policy,” he said.

He noted the weather disasters ranging from floods to droughts to fire underscore the need for a strong safety net that meets the needs of a diverse industry. He said his office is offering “technical expertise” to both the House and Senate agriculture committees but did not offer any specific policies the Administration would support moving forward.

He did mention on conservation that funding will have to be creative and gave the Eco System markets as an example of an opportunity to leverage private money with desired outcomes. In Oregon a power plant was faced with having to put a $10 million cooling tower in to keep the river which is home to millions of salmon cooler. Instead, it developed a partnership with local farmers to plant shade trees along the river and paid them approximately $3 million.

Moving forward, it does seem like agriculture is going to have to depend less on the USDA and more on leveraging private partnerships. Ohio State today offered how some of the technology and innovation born in the laboratory are making its way into commercialization stages.

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