LAST week, assumptions were confirmed when President Barack Obama announced that he had asked Tom Vilsack to stay on as agriculture secretary for his second term.
Vilsack, who will be the first agriculture secretary in more than a generation to serve two consecutive terms, has come into his own over the past four years. He has forged many important alliances to dance the fine lines drawn in a diversified agriculture industry while helping to make sure agriculture is represented at the table in other key discussions, whether on the economy or upcoming regulations.
While speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation, Vilsack challenged attendees to build on strategic alliances, extend the reach of key farm groups and participate in constructive engagement.
"It will be necessary for us to continue what we started over the last several years of constructively engaging those where we may have questions or difficulties," he said.
Vilsack highlighted several situations where he has told agriculture's story, ranging from engaging with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson or inviting top officials from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for a symposium to help explain innovation in agriculture.
Vilsack will have his work cut out for him as he deals with a significant changeover in Cabinet and leading government officials in Obama's second term. At least he has a leg up on how things work as well as what has worked in the past.
Mary Kay Thatcher, senior director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau Federation, gave Vilsack "great marks for attempting to help agriculture, especially with EPA." She added that he wasn't always successful but at least gave other officials a better view of how things may affect agriculture.
Thatcher and many in agriculture fear that environmental regulations in the next two years could be very damaging to agriculture and small businesses, and if work on the laws doesn't succeed, the industry will be forced to spend an enormous amount of time and money in the court system on environmental issues.
Vilsack took issue with criticism directed at those practicing this constructive engagement and said egg producers shouldn't be criticized for working with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
"Egg producers thought it was in their best interest to avoid 50 different referendums, 50 different sets of rules, so they sat down with folks, and they reached common ground. After all, isn't that what we're asking our Congress to do?"
Vilsack acknowledged that different producers will have different issues but said egg producers have the right idea.
"We need to be constructively engaged at all times in conversations. We may not find agreements, but I think we will substantially reduce those who oppose farming and substantially reduce the reach of those," he said.
He noted that HSUS may not have many friends among agriculture, but agriculture still needs to stay engaged in the conversation and build alliances in order to remain relative in a changing world.
Vilsack concluded that he gets frustrated when agriculture doesn't get its due, "but I've got a feeling that we're beginning to turn the corner. I've got a feeling that 2013 is going to be the year where people begin to pay a lot of attention to what takes place in rural America."