The Richmond Register


November 27, 2013

Farming Misunderstood and Under-appreciated

WASHINGTON — As you look at your (I hope) full plate this Thanksgiving, take a guess at what percentage of your annual income you spend on food.

Whatever you guessed, you probably guessed too high.

“We pay as low as 6 percent,” Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, tells me at a conference table in his office. “In most other industrialized countries, it’s 20-25 percent.”

And if you were spending that much on food in America, Vilsack asks, “how big a house would you have? How nice a car?”

In addition to being a relatively small amount of our income, our supply of edibles is virtually guaranteed. “America does not really have to depend on the rest of the world for food,” Vilsack says.

We do buy stuff from overseas, of course, but in the event of some national or global emergency, we would not have to.

For now. It doesn’t all happen by accident. Agricultural policy is actually very complicated, but Vilsack, a former two-term governor of Iowa, is really into it.

Only 1 percent of the U.S. population actually farms. Though Vilsack and his wife own a farm in Iowa, nobody in the Vilsack family has worked a farm since his great-great-grandfather. But, Vilsack says, 1 in 12 jobs in America are connected to agriculture.

And when he says “agriculture,” Vilsack is talking about more than a guy on a tractor, though it is clear he likes guys on tractors.

“It’s tied to national security,” he says. “In 40 years, we will have to increase agriculture by 70 percent globally to feed the world.” But the amount of land devoted to agriculture is shrinking -- think climate change and urban development -- and because of that, farmers will have to produce more food with less land and less water.

“And if you think the world is unsafe today, wait until we have serious fights over food and water.”

Enter the American farmer. “Farming is under-appreciated and misunderstood,” Vilsack says. “It is a sophisticated business.”

It is also a business whose practitioners are aging. The average age of a farmer on a commercial-sized farm is probably close to 60, Vilsack says, and it’s hard work. “There are three times as many farmers over the age of 65 as under the age of 25,” he says.

But Vilsack is optimistic, listing strategies for the future of agriculture, including farmers “getting more personal with their customers” via farmers markets and food hubs; converting agricultural products such as corn cobs into plastic bottles, grass into a substitute for fiberglass and livestock waste, such as hog manure, into asphalt; and even cooling the wastewater from electrical plants by planting shade trees along streams.

Farmers also contribute something else. Though rural America makes up only 16 percent of the U.S. population, approximately 35 percent of military recruits come from rural America. “Rural families contribute their sons and daughters,” Vilsack says.

And then I make the mistake of asking about the farm bill, which is one of those vastly important, largely impenetrable (to me, anyway) pieces of omnibus legislation through which the government shapes food policy, reaching into the life of every American who eats.

Fortunately, a number of people do understand the farm bill, but unfortunately, too many of them treat it as a political football. Congress is supposed to pass a farm bill every five years, but it hasn’t. “Arguably, it is two years overdue,” Vilsack says, though parts of it continue through separate funding, and other programs lurch along on whatever dollars they have left over in the pot.

To Vilsack, this is no way to run food policy, though he realizes that many eyes glaze over whenever President Barack Obama drops a mention of the farm bill into his speeches.

One of the things that make the farm bill so controversial is that it controls food stamps. “And there is a tendency on the part of some to view (food stamp) beneficiaries as welfare queens,” Vilsack says.

But some 92 percent of the people who get food stamps, he says, are senior citizens, disabled people who cannot work or children in families in which both parents are working.

According to Vilsack, more than 15 percent of the nation receives food assistance, and even though the average amount for a family of four is only about $340 per month, it all adds up to $74.6 billion per fiscal year.

Vilsack points out that those dollars go back into the U.S. economy when people buy food and that “every dollar spent generates $1.70 in jobs” for people who work in groceries, drive food trucks, etc.

“We need to have a better appreciation of the contribution of rural America, not for well-to-do farmers but for all America,” Vilsack says.

So what should Americans think about on this Thanksgiving? I ask him.

“I would like them to think about how, as an American, you are more secure because America is producing all you need,” he says. “And somewhere in America on this Thanksgiving, there is a guy in the fields, still working.”


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