Vilsack talks USDA funding, market opportunities during Midwest visit

On Oct. 10, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack swung through Rochester following a stop in Iowa, where the secretary touted the department’s rural development initiatives and investments in the Midwest’s meat industry.

During the stops, Vilsack also called out ongoing efforts in Congress to slash USDA’s budget. Many USDA programs are in flux following the stalled fiscal year 2024 USDA appropriations bill, which failed to pass the House in late September just prior to Congressman Kevin McCarthy’s historic ouster as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. A potential government shutdown, along with the currently vacated House speaker position, are putting USDA’s budget in jeopardy, Vilsack said.

“The budget cuts are real,” Vilsack told residents at the Lime Springs community center, which was constructed with USDA funds.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack (middle) discusses the department’s budget and rural development investments during a stop in Iowa on Oct. 10, 2023.

The USDA is currently being funded through Nov. 17 following the short-term funding extension Congress passed in late September. Vilsack said if Congress doesn’t address the Farm Bill by year’s end, serious ramifications could take place. With turmoil in the nation’s capital, USDA is facing a challenging set of complications because of Congress’ inaction.

“At the end of the day, I think Congress knows that and they’re going to have to pass an extension of the existing bill, or they are going to have to pass a Farm Bill,” Vilsack said. “How do you do that?”

The secretary also emphasized how much the farming landscape has changed in the past four decades: Since 1981, the country has lost 437,000 farmers since 1981 – roughly the equivalent of all the producers in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois and Colorado combined. In that same time frame, about 141.1 million acres have also been removed from production across the country.

“Are we OK with that?” Vilsack said. “When you lose 437,000 farmers, you lose the farm families associated with that, and that has a profound effect on schools. … It (also) means the small business owner doesn’t have enough customers to stay open. … It means the hospital has a hard time attracting a (doctor) and retaining a doc.”

USDA’s investments in rural development could hold the key to reversing, our at least slowing down, that trend.

“It’s challenging way of life, but one that very few farmers that I know are unhappy with, they love what they do,” Vilsack told Rochester’s KTTC News following his stop in Iowa.

With most Minnesota soybean farmers hard at work with harvest, Joe Smentek, executive director of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association, attended the Iowa event on behalf of the organization.

Follow The Conversation