Vilsack calls latest House Ag Committee hearings a wasted opportunity.

Joshua Baethge, Policy editor

February 16, 2024

3 Min Read
Vilsack speaking at Ag Outlook Forum
Joshua Baethge

Following an address at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Washington this week, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was hard-pressed to say anything positive about his most recent meeting with the House Agriculture Committee. When asked if anything productive came from his nearly five hours of testimony, he paused several seconds before choosing his words carefully.

“I think that these hearings are a wasted opportunity,” Vilsack said. “It is unfortunate that there weren't questions to explore.”

He acknowledged that Agriculture Committee hearings are less theatrical and political than most other Congressional committees. He also went out of his way to express his respect for Committee Chair Glenn “GT” Thompson and the working relationship they have.

Still, the Secretary was disappointed there weren’t more discussions about finding more creative ways to help farmers. He wished the hearing could have included discussions on how the Commodity Credit Corporation could potentially open up new revenues to support initiatives committee members have advocated for. Instead, it seemed to him like many lawmakers simply wanted to get their point across. To Vilsack, that was akin to preaching to the choir.

“I think in this country, we have to get beyond that,” he said. “It (the hearing) was an opportunity to explain the importance of a farm bill to everybody, not just a handful of farmers. It was an opportunity to talk about rural America contributes to the rest of the country”

Vilsack added that, while many take for granted U.S. stability compared to other countries, that doesn’t mean lawmakers still can’t aim higher. He believes they can pass a bill that provides for those in need and supports large-scale operations without excluding small and mid-sized producers.

A brief interruption

Earlier in the day, a protester briefly interrupted Vilsack’s keynote address. Security quickly escorted her away as she shouted, “end animal agriculture.”  Her call to action did little to motivate anyone. The secretary quipped it was “democracy in action.”

When he resumed, Vilsack continued his push for more efforts to help smaller farming operations. He disputed the argument that the declining number of farms is something the nation should accept. Instead, he says there needs to be more efforts to help farmers develop additional revenue streams, negating the need for outside income sources.

According to USDA data, 89% of all farm incomes goes to large-scale operations with annual sales topping $500,000. The remaining 11% went to the remaining 1.6 to 1.6 million farms across the country.

 “Ask yourself if it’s okay for us just simply to focus on the top seven or ten percent,” Vilsack said. “Ask yourself if we in America can’t do better and be better, and make sure that we send a message to every single farmer, regardless of size, that they are valued, not just for what they do but for who they are. “

No signs of farm bill progress

As for the farm bill, there have been few signs of recent progress. Congress is now facing yet another deadline to craft a 2024 fiscal budget. So far, there has been little progress since Congressional leaders agreed to a third funding extension last month. Work on appropriations will likely dominate Congress’s schedule in the coming weeks. That, combined with continued debate over foreign aid to Ukraine and Israel, and calls for increased border security, leave the farm bill’s fate as uncertain as ever.

About the Author(s)

Joshua Baethge

Policy editor, Farm Progress

Joshua Baethge covers a wide range of government issues affecting agriculture. Before joining Farm Progress, he spent 10 years as a news and feature reporter in Texas. During that time, he covered multiple state and local government entities, while also writing about real estate, nightlife, culture and whatever else was the news of the day.

Baethge earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Texas. In his free time, he enjoys going to concerts, discovering new restaurants, finding excuses to be outside and traveling as much as possible. He is based in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife and two kids.

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