AGRICULTURE Secretary Tom Vilsack is winding down what can be considered a very successful stint as the country's top agricultural leader, serving longer than any other present-day agriculture secretary.
Contrary to the storyline about the Obama Administration and Congress, Vilsack has been able to oversee and direct positive — and, in some ways, historic — work, including passage of the 2014 farm bill. He also broadened the U.S. Department of Agriculture's outreach and expanded the agency's marketing message, leading to a greater sense of inclusion for the vast types of agriculture at work in the U.S.
He has championed the farmer, not the type of production, commonly saying that being asked if he preferred organic or conventional farming was like being asked which of his two sons he loves more.
In an exclusive interview with Feedstuffs, Vilsack shared his highlights and lowlights from the past eight years.
Measuring success is never easy, but using the definition offered by President Barack Obama that you measure it by judging whether you've left a place better than you found it, Vilsack said then he can make the case that rural America is indeed better than it was eight years ago when he took the top post at USDA.
"Every mission area we're focused on we're leaving better than we found it," Vilsack said.
In meeting with the food safety administrator, who has been with the agency for 30 years, he complimented Vilsack's team for not just taking one significant step in food safety but accomplishing five.
Vilsack said those successes include actions to make ground beef safer from adulterants such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, modernizing poultry food safety inspections and determining the testing and holding policy that requires meat and poultry companies to hold product that is undergoing microbial and chemical lab tests.
"When they write the history books about this administration, they will find we accomplished a great deal on food safety," Vilsack noted.
He highlighted accomplishments like decreasing unemployment numbers and food insecurity rates, plus hitting record levels for median farm household income and agricultural exports.
He also noted the success of leaving American's children in a better, healthier place as obesity rates are coming down thanks to improved school feeding programs and the Women, Infant & Children program.
As secretary, Vilsack has been able to successfully leverage government resources through public/private partnerships. Most notable is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, which matches public funds with private funding to enhance implementation of conservation practices.
He also made a strong case for increased agricultural research funding and established a research foundation to catalyze investments.
When faced with a dwindling budget that meant doing more with less, he stepped up to the plate to do so. Vilsack touted the fact that he has been able to save 315,000 hours of time and $65 million in additional expenses by streamlining and improving efficiencies during the recent years of lower budget allocations for the department.
Vilsack did acknowledge that USDA was unable to convince Congress to rethink how funding should address U.S. Forest Service needs. Half to two-thirds of the forest budget is currently spent on putting out fires rather than cultivating healthier forests.
"Sincerely, I hope this is an early win for the next administration," he said.
Voice for rural America
Vilsack nearly left his post a year ago but, at the request of Obama, was offered the opportunity to devote additional time to the drug epidemic in rural America. For Vilsack, it's personal, as his mother battled an addiction to painkillers. He said he has seen far greater awareness and appreciation of the extent of the epidemic and the number of lives affected.
Under Vilsack's direction, USDA has mobilized a series of grant programs to help communities, hospitals and local housing better address treatment and recovery in rural areas. He also held town hall meetings around the country to hear from rural Americans themselves on the issue.
He noted that there is a more open discussion about addiction as a disease instead of it being written off as a character flaw. "Progress has been made, but it's a long battle," he said.
Vilsack has spent a considerable amount of time during his tenure building bridges while also trying to bring truth into rhetoric-filled conversations.
"I think there needs to be a consistency of messages throughout the supply chain from farm to fork so that we don't have food companies saying one thing and producers saying something different," Vilsack said.
He noted that the consumer isn't always right, and instead it takes an "informed consumer."
He regularly cites the increased cost and lack of communication with producers after many companies in the foodservice industry pushed for an all cage-free egg supply. "Companies should understand costs before they advocate for a significant change," he said.
Vilsack added that the leader of USDA has the "responsibility to carry that voice" and be the one to encourage unity within agriculture, the food production system and consumers.
Vilsack: Fun facts
Normal wakeup time? 6:30 a.m.
Favorite food? I have so many favorite foods, but I really like rib-eyes. If I'm at the Iowa State Fair, there is only one food: pork chop on a stick.
Cowboy boots or tennis shoes? Cowboy boots.
Normal workout routine? When I first started this job, I ran home, which is about five miles. I used to run marathons. Now, it's 45 minutes on the elliptical, 30 minutes on the bike, 20 minutes walking and two to three times a week lifting weights.
First time you rode on a tractor? It was at my uncle Bob and aunt Sis's in Pennsylvania. I was 10 or 11 years old. They had a small, 80-acre farm that is still in the family. That is also where I shot my first pheasant.
Things you miss most from Iowa since coming to Washington, D.C.? Grandkids.
Toughest class in college? French. The French minister who speaks a little bit of English always speaks French, and I only catch a few of the words, even after taking five years of French. If my life depended on it, I would probably die.
Agriculture secretary you look up to most? I look up to Henry Wallace every day. Dan Glickman has also been a great friend, but Henry Wallace is the standard.
What have you learned most about farmers? Farmers do what they do because they love what they do. They do what they do because they feel connected to past generations, and they're proud of it. They do what they do because they feel there is a morality to what they do in terms of feeding the world and seeing themselves as givers. They are a resilient bunch. In the face of adversity, they are strong.
How many states have you visited as secretary? All 50.
What countries have you visited that have been the most eye opening to you? Brazil has incredible production capacity, but fortunately for us, their transportation sector is behind. Kenya's agriculture is so basic — similar to the 1900s. It is amazing how much more opportunity they would have if they embrace some new technologies.