Speaking with a Single Voice

Ag industry needs to present united front, Vilsack says
By Holly Jessen | October 18, 2011

Whenever possible, the agricultural community should speak with a single voice, said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Whether it’s the livestock industry, corn growers or bioenergy producers, all should focus on telling one of the greatest untold stories—the extraordinary innovation of agriculture.

Vilsack tackled the topic of the livestock industry’s perceived concerns over feed availability during his keynote address, Sept. 21 at Growth Energy’s Second Legislative Conference. Corn growers and bioenergy producers should be considered friends of the livestock industry, not foes, he said in answer to a question from an audience member. When these groups waste time “fussing” with their friends they are losing an opportunity to talk about the power and importance of the U.S. agricultural industry. “We don’t have the luxury—that’s what it is, in my view—of fussing with each other,” he said. “We have to have a concerted effort to speak to the other 99.9 percent.” It’s a message, he added, that he’s brought to groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council.

Vilsack also talked about advances in technology that have allowed agriculture to substantially expand productivity. Agriculture has not been static. “Instead of fussing with each other, figure out how you can do it all,” he said. “Part of it involves a commitment to research.” Billions in research funding is going into programs to do wonderful things like find a cure for cancer. Agricultural research, on the other hand, has flatlined and even declined somewhat, Vilsack said. Further productivity gains are needed at a time when U.S. agriculture needs to find ways to feed billions of people, at home and overseas.

Finally, Vilsack pointed to the biorefineries of the future. The biofuels industry is working on alternative feedstocks and alternative fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol. “My sense of this—we are now at a tipping point. We are going to start seeing a lot of these biorefineries pop up like mushrooms,” he said, “and people are going to say where did this all come from?”

The ethanol industry has always had his emphatic support, Vilsack said, because of its role in providing jobs and revitalizing rural communities. “Your industry is a great example of American ingenuity and American opportunity and it is important and necessary that this industry be allowed to progress,” he said. 

There are challenges, of course. “At the end of the day, you are producing something that the rest of the world is very interested in,” he says. “And as we perfect the process, as we create alternative ways to produce energy from waste products and from a wide variety of feedstocks, you are going to establish and set the table for the rest of the world.” 

—Holly Jessen