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Points North

Points North: Tom Vilsack’s bleak American landscape

Early this month, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, spoke to the National Press Club. The topic of his speech was, “Expanding American Agriculture.” I happened to catch the talk on public radio as I was driving to Duluth. From my perspective, Mr. Vilsack presented a bleak picture of America’s future.

Perhaps no one else presides over such a vast swath of the American landscape as the Secretary of Agriculture. The USDA is deeply involved in the nation’s ranching and farming, and is responsible for management of the country’s national forests and grasslands. From the Conservation Reserve Program set asides that provide habitat for ducks and pheasants to the timber harvests that create habitat for deer and ruffed grouse, no federal agency has as much influence over the private and public lands used by America’s hunters. Vilsack didn’t mention this in his speech.

The first thing he did talk about was his former chief of staff. “…it’s good to see my good friend, Krysta Harden, who’d doing a great job at DuPont and who did an incredibly great job at the Department of Agriculture in a variety of capacities. She was Congressional relations, she was my chief of staff, she was the deputy,” Vilsack said. Ah yes, government and industry’s endlessly revolving door. DuPont must find her…useful.

Vilsack referred to agriculture as the “bio-based products industry,” saying, “This is an industry that is also about energy production and fuel production, but much more than that. It’s about chemicals. It’s about plastics. It’s about fabrics and textiles. It’s about cleaning supplies and lubricants. It’s about insulation materials and packing materials.”

And you thought farming was about putting food on the table.

The USDA is all about energy production. Vilsack talked at length about efforts to create biofuels and related products and the billions of dollars the government has invested to do so. They are even developing bio-based aviation fuels. The USDA is repurposing not only the nation’s farmland for energy production, but also its forests as well. The Department has helped fund over 230 wood energy projects, primarily in the West.

The USDA has increased farming efficiency, but at great cost to the social fabric of rural America. Said Vilsack, “In my lifetime, we’ve seen 170% increase in agricultural production on 26% less land and 22 million fewer farmers. The challenge was that our country didn’t ask the question, as we were becoming more efficient in production agriculture, what are we going to do with the 22 million families that are no longer in farming? How can we create opportunities for them, if they so desire, to stay in their small community, their rural area? How can we create job opportunities for their children and grandchildren?”

His answer wasn’t surprising: Put them to work in the factories that create biofuels. And keep expanding the bio-based economy.

“The bio-based manufacturing industry is one that holds out tremendous hope for rural America because of the nature of the bio-processing that needs to take place,” he said. “The quantity of biomass that we produce in this country is almost unlimited…The size and bulk of biomass requires that you have processing facilities every 75, 100, 150 miles.”

While it is true that biofuel production can deliver good-paying jobs to rural communities, current drop in petroleum prices and shuttering of ethanol production projects has shown us it is not a fool-proof panacea. Also, it’s a little unnerving anytime someone refers to the supply of agricultural crops or natural resources as “unlimited.” After all, they once said the same about the bison and the passenger pigeon. And, as has been shown multiple times through history with events such as the Irish Potato Famine, agriculture is never more than a blight or pest outbreak away from catastrophe.

It is especially disturbing that during this century, the U.S. has devoted more and more of its landscape to energy production. In addition to converting millions of acres of cropland and forest to biomass for fuel, we’ve stepped up domestic oil drilling and fracking, and created wind and solar “farms.” If there is anything in this country that is truly unlimited, it’s our appetite for cheap and plentiful energy supplies.

This is collective narcissism, because we’ve come to value energy above virtually everything else. Mr. Vilsack’s bio-products boosterism comes at a time when many Americans are becoming more enlightened about where their food comes from and are seeking alternatives to what they consider “factory farmed” meats, grains and vegetables found on grocery store shelves. One can only wonder if the USDA is devoting as much attention to helping farmers produce better foods as it is to increasing energy production.

Vilsack said, “So the local and regional food system, we’ve invested …near a billion dollars in creating a supply chain for local and regional food systems, allowing small and mid-sized producers the ability to market directly to a consumer so they can dictate their own price…It went from a $5 billion industry just about the time I started as Secretary to now a $12 billion industry.”

This is good to hear, but it must be noted Vilsack also said the U.S. bio-based products industry had a $369 billion impact on our economy last year. In 2016, the industry is expected to grow by $24 million. Clearly, energy is where the action is.

What most dismayed me about Vilsack’s talk was what he didn’t say about healthy landscapes and clean water. Apparently, the USDA views conservation as just another marketplace.
“Conservation. We have a record number of acres enrolled in conservation today. American farmers and ranchers, stewards of the land and water. But we need to basically help them finance these conservation practices,” Vilsack said.

Ok, nothing new there. But here’s how USDA intends to do that.

Says Vilsack, “And one way to do that is by saying to regulated industries: We’re corporations that have a social responsibility that’s focused on conservation. Coca-Cola just recently announced that they re-upped their commitment to reclaim all of the water that they use in their Coca-Cola products by committing to another one billion liters, that they’ll work with USDA through conservation programs, putting millions of dollars behind this.

“Those millions of dollars that Coca-Cola is putting into this will go to farmers and ranchers and producers to expand significantly conservation opportunities. That’s creating an ecosystem market. Water markets, habitat markets, soil health markets, carbon markets, these are all new opportunities for investment.”

Of course, the devil is in the details. Will corporate money be invested in buffer strips along polluted Minnesota waterways? Will it be spent to restore grasslands around prairie potholes? For that matter, will it be used to restore drained wetlands? And will corporate money be enough to get the conservation job done?

Vilsack’s USDA seems determined to squeeze more and more bio-based products from the American landscape while giving as little as possible back to the land. But this is what conservationists have long since come to expect from the USDA. What worries me more is that Vilsack seems to have a tin ear regarding the very real need for conservation to provide healthy lands and waters. The same seems to be true for nearly everyone in Washington these days. And out here in the real world, we suffer the consequences of top-down conservation deprivation.

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