Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (R) at the cow judging contest at the 2012 World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI, in 2012.  Stephen Schmieding, <a href="">CC 2.0</a>

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (R) at the cow judging contest at the 2012 World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI, in 2012. Stephen Schmieding, CC 2.0

The longest-serving member of President Obama’s cabinet has a new challenge – saving the jobs of thousands of dairy farmers. These days Tom Vilsack is the top voice for America’s dairy industry. But many farmers are struggling to break even. A conversation with former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.


  • Tom Vilsack President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council; former secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More Of Your Questions Answered

After the show, we sent more of your questions to Tom Vilsack.

As a follow-along to earlier questions about organic farming and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, I’d like to hear what Mr. Vilsack has to say about the future of monoculture and its impact on our food system.

Vilsack: The Obama administration believed strongly that the health of our agricultural system depended upon support for greater diversity in production methods, crops, operators and size of operations. We invested historic amounts in conservation to encourage more sustainable practices, including cover crops. We promoted in our Conservation Reserve Program an effort to enhance pollinator habitat. I think we will see in the not-too-distant future crop rotations that include more than one or two crops as farmers learn more about soil health.

In Vermont farms have traditionally been exempt from animal-waste and storm-water runoff.  As a result, farms use town ditches to drain their fields, having removed ponds on their property. This wastewater is often nutriment-rich, draining into and polluting rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. The runoff inundates non-farm properties that are at lower elevations. EPA water protection regulations promised to overturn local and state passes by requiring farms to properly handle their wastewater and storm runoff.  What can be done now to require farms to take this responsibility?

Not sure about what, if anything, the current EPA will do about wastewater and storm runoff, but I hope the USDA continues to promote the 4 R’s of nutrient management. The 4 R’s involve right time, right amount, right place and right rate. As we become more knowledgeable about the condition of each acre we have a great opportunity to avoid over-use of nutrients. During the Obama administration, as part of our Climate Smart Agriculture effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions connected to agriculture, we promoted the 4 R’s as one of 10 strategies for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.

Can you please ask the secretary what the government is doing to protect consumers from GMOs?

There are numerous peer-reviewed studies that have established the safety of food produced from GMO crops. The government’s role with reference to GMO is to make sure before they are used that they do not present a food safety or plant health risk. Recently, Congress passed a law requiring that within the next 18 months or so we have a labeling system in place that will give customers notice when food might contain GMOs. USDA was given the responsibility to formulate the rules for that system.

The secretary is wrong on large commercial farming. Tell him to come the Maumee River basin in Ohio and observe the pollution that is flowing free into the river, culminating in toxic algae blooms. The farms are free from legislation requiring them to provide sewage treatment that the same number of humans would require. He needs to check his facts.

I have traveled extensively in Ohio and am fully aware of the algae bloom issues that have impacted the rivers and Great Lakes in the upper Midwest. During my time as secretary, we announced and began investing in one of the largest conservation efforts ever in the Great Lakes to address the algae bloom problem. I believe over $70 million was committed specifically in the areas most connected to the problem to begin addressing the runoff. More and more farms are confronting the runoff issue, and the long-term solution will involve a partnership between governments at every level and landowners. Given the current administration I don’t believe we can expect much in the way of a regulatory response, but there are many examples of farmers responding to incentive-based conservation options. The Chesapeake Bay provides one example where over 90 percent of farmland now has conservation practices in place and we are beginning to see marked improvement in water quality.

With the numerous meat recalls, and the apparent dairy culling, where do these carcasses and the millions of pounds of contaminated meat go?

Dairy cows represent about 25 percent of the beef supply in the U.S. Recalled meat supplies cannot be placed in the stream of commerce and are destroyed.

Why are we importing and exporting food in and out of our country when we have enough space and producers to be food independent?

We import food because American consumers want choice and competition for their food dollar spent.

If we are a food-secure country, why do we have so many food-insecure communities in our nation?

Good question. Grocery chains have been unwilling until recently to consider locating in sparsely populated areas (rural areas) and in poorer neighborhoods. That is changing. Whole Foods has a program working in Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans and Baltimore that I am aware of. During the Obama administration we changed the rules for participating in SNAP that required more fresh foods and more choices if smaller convenience stores wanted to continue to participate in SNAP. More work is required in this space. The USDA website had a map showing the location of food deserts. Not sure if it is still there but you can look at

It’s difficult to sell grain on the world market. We are farmers, not market scientists. What can be done to support higher sale prices?

Farmers could consider focusing efforts on niche, higher-value- added opportunities like organic or local and regional market opportunities where prices are higher or the farmer has more control over what he or she asks for the products they are selling. Farm-to-school opportunities are growing and represent a big market opportunity.

Why should the government subsidize mom and pop / family farms when it does not do so in other industries?

We help farmers out in tough times in part to continue to encourage production here of what we need to feed ourselves because it means we spend less at the grocery store and have better confidence in the safety of what we are buying.

What are we doing to advance agricultural education in America – particularly in high schools and colleges, and programs such as 4H and FFA?

During the Obama administration we proposed more investment in FFA and 4H but could not convince Congress to increase funding. I personally encouraged the Education Department to put more emphasis on rural schools in the hopes we could bring agriculture education back into the classroom.

What are industrial uses of dairy (saw something about it on TV)?

Adhesives, paper coatings, plastics, packing materials, insulation, animal health products, cosmetics, water repellant gels, emulsifiers, food coatings, pharmaceuticals and TV screens.

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