Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
160 Landon Lecture
April 10, 2012
Well this is a special day for me. I told my wife that I had been honored with this distinction and I went on the Web and took a look at some of the people who have given this lecture before. I must say it's a bit intimidating to be on the same stage and in the same auditorium that former Presidents and former Nobel Prize winners have been to talk to you about agriculture and the importance of it.
But she sort of brought me down to earth - as she normally does - when she said, "Alf Landon. You know we're a divided political family. My grandmother was a Republican and my grandfather was a Democrat. Grandmother was quite enthused about Alf Landon, kept talking about Alf Landon, and kept turning on the radio to hear Alf Landon speak."
At one point Christie's grandfather got so mad that he basically said to his wife: "If I have to listen to Alf Landon speak one more time I'm throwing that damned radio out the window." So here we are at the Landon Lecture Series.
Today is personally an important day for me because 61 years ago my parents came to a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh and they decided to take me home with them. I was born in this orphanage and my birth mother made the decision not to raise me. As my parents explained it to me, it was sort of like shopping for the Thanksgiving turkey. They went to the orphanage and decided they were going to look for the plumpest kid they could find on the theory that I would be healthy and indeed brought me home.
That was my first foray with food. Apparently I was well-fed at the orphanage. I have a picture of myself my first day at home, slathered with spinach, and I was a pretty hefty little fellow.
But I don't think my parents ever, ever, ever imagined in a hundred years that I would be the Secretary of Agriculture for this country. They might have seen a future for me as a mayor as I was growing up and maybe as a state Senator, but never in their furthest imagination the Secretary of Agriculture. Because they, like many Americans, did not fully appreciate and understand agriculture. They had been, like many Americans, several generations removed from the farm and they really didn't have an appreciation for what took place in the rural areas of my home state of Pennsylvania, or for that matter the rural areas of the United States.
And so today I thought I would take this opportunity to rise, if you will, in defense of agriculture and to speak candidly and passionately about the importance of agriculture to the rest of the country and how underappreciated and under-recognized agriculture is in this country. And how it's going to be important particularly for the students who are in this audience to carry a message - a very positive, aggressive message - about the contribution that agriculture makes to this nation every single day.
And to put this in context, my staff gives me every day a series of synopses of the media about agriculture. I look through the clips and I kind of get a general sense of what people are talking about and saying on the topics of agriculture or relating to USDA. I ran across one the other day and sometimes when I run across a blurb I say I want to see the entire article.
It was from Yahoo. When I was growing up a yahoo was somebody who was not real smart. Let me say that there was a yahoo writing for Yahoo who went online and decided to pontificate about useless degrees. He felt, by virtue of his degree in theater, that he was able to list the useless degrees that are being issued today and awarded and earned by students today in American schools, and he had his top-ten list. The number one useless degree from this individual's perspective was agriculture.
I will tell you that is so far from the truth that it prompts me to talk about this issue today, and I'm going to give you seven reasons why agriculture is not only not a useless degree, but it's an imperative degree. It's a fundamental degree. It is a significant degree, especially for this country at this time.
Let me start with the obvious. America is a country that is food-secure. Now don't take that for granted. Don't take for granted the fact that American producers can produce enough for all of us to eat. Eighty-five percent of all the food we consume is produced here in the United States. The other 15 percent is because we like to have tangerines and avocados 12 months of the year instead of maybe four or five months out of the year, so we import stuff. Because we want choice, we want diversity.
But the staples of life are produced by our producers, and an extraordinarily small number of producers. If you take the definition of farming that we use at USDA - it's a fairly broad, expansive definition - anybody who produces more than $1,000 of produce and sells it is a farmer under our Ag Census definition. If you focus on the people who produce the bulk of what we consume - 85% of the 85% - it's one-tenth of one percent of our population. It's just 200,000 to 300,000 people.
But since 1980, those folks have allowed agriculture to be the second-most productive aspect of our economy - of our entire economy. The second-most productive aspect. Because they are so productive they are able to feed our country. And make no mistake that there's hardly any other place on earth that has that security of knowing that if all else fails - if the ports get shut down, if we hunker down and we're engaged in some massive conflagration - we're going to be able to feed ourselves.
That has not always been the case. Someone who gave this lecture a number of years ago — someone whom I have a great amount of respect for, Norman Borlaug, an Iowan, came here and may have told you about his early childhood in the thirties when Americans weren't producing enough. Or you may be aware of the past of the school lunch program when Harry Truman was concerned that we weren't going to be able to consume enough calories to have a military capable of defending this nation. We weren't always a nation that was food secure. We are today. The result of it is it gives us great flexibility, not only to feed ourselves but also to create more opportunities with reference to agriculture. So that in and of itself is a reason why people should be celebrating agriculture.
In fact, we ought to put a representative sampling of an American farmer on Mount Rushmore. Come to think of it, Washington was a farmer, Jefferson was a farmer, and Lincoln came from farm country. And Roosevelt, well shoot all he did was establish the Forest Service. So we've said it all on Mount Rushmore. An interesting thing about George Washington: did you realize that he's responsible for the American donkey? He was the one who figured out the cross-section of horses and mules. Interesting thought - I'm sure you'll take that from the lecture.
Keeping the country secure. Make no mistake about the fact that a country that's well-fed is a country that's at peace with itself. When you take a look at what's happening in other parts of the world, a lot of the discontent, a lot of the difficulties, a lot of the turmoil is a result of the fact that people are not fully well-fed in those countries. You want to talk about the Arab Spring? What was the start of it? It was that people were hungry. It's interesting to me that when we have discussions with North Korea about nuclear weapons that the one thing that they desperately need from the rest of the world is food. Hopefully at some point in time that capacity of the rest of the world to provide food will encourage them to move away from a very dangerous path they're on.
And that brings me to the second reason that agriculture is important: keeping the country safe and secure and well-fed, that's in and of itself important, but what about the capacity of the United States to help feed the world and keep it safe? There are 925 million people in the world today that are malnourished. We expect and anticipate to see the world population to grow from seven billion to eight billion to nine billion in the lifetime of the people in this auditorium, and it might even reach ten billion. We have to increase food productivity by 70 percent just to meet that demand. If we think there is difficulty in the world today over oil, imagine what the difficulties will be if we're fussing and fighting over food and water. And so it will be agriculture that will provide more security. It will be American agriculture that will lead that effort. But there are several provisions to that.
One provision is that we continue to invest in research, because our extraordinary productivity that's occurred over the last 20, 30, 40 years is not just a result of us doing a slightly better job of farming. It's about the research that has allowed us to provide technologies - new seed technology, precision agriculture, and new equipment - that has led to an extraordinary explosion. When I started practicing law in a small town in southeast Iowa, farmers were planting roughly 16,000 to 17,000 corn seeds per acre. Today routinely 30,000. Some are planting 40,000. And there's at least one company that's experimenting on 60,000 seeds per acre. That's extraordinary expansion of productivity - in my lifetime a 300 percent increase in corn, a 200 percent increase in wheat, a 200 percent increase in soy beans.
And that has allowed us the capacity not just simply to provide food for our people, but to provide food assistance for others. There's an extraordinary program that this state has a direct connection to called the Dole-McGovern (or McGovern-Dole, depending on where you are) Feeding Program. It impacts the lives of millions of children across the world. I saw it myself in Kenya. I went to an orphanage my first year as Secretary. I thought it would be appropriate because it would be something that maybe in some small way I could connect to these young people.
We had the little red cup from the World Food Program and our job was to fill that little red cup with food and give it to them and then spend a few minutes talking to them. They had these food programs connected to the education program. And so I asked the question that I would have asked as a governor of a state when I went to a school: what do you like about school? What's your favorite subject? If I asked that question of an American student they might - depending upon their grade level and depending upon how well they liked school - it might be anything from math to science to recess. But these kids all had the same answer. What is it that you like about school? "It's where I get fed." It's where I get fed.
Now when you establish programs like that and the American moniker, the American flag is attached to that program, and that youngster gets fed and gets educated because of that program, it is unlikely that youngster is going to grow up to dislike this country. It is more likely that this youngster is going to grow up to admire this country and want to have that same kind of opportunity in his country. So American agriculture has the capacity and the ability not just to feed our own but to reach out and to help others.
We have the Feed the Future Initiative at USDA and the State Department where we're not just simply providing our excess, but we're also providing a transfer of knowledge and information so that these farmers in those countries can be more productive as well. They are not going to compete with us. We all are in this together if we're going to meet this extraordinary human challenge of feeding the world's population and doing it at a time when there will be less and because of urban expansion globally, greater threats to water resources, and more extreme weather conditions. It's a challenge of a lifetime for the students who are here. It's the capacity to save the world. And it's American agriculture that is at the center of that. And it's at the center of making sure that we have a safer world, less prone to terrorism because people who are hungry, people who are well-educated, have a future. They don't necessarily want to destroy, they want to build. So that's two pretty good reasons why American agriculture and agricultural degrees are pretty doggone important to this country.
But what about exports? What about the economy of the country? That's pretty significant. We talk about trade deficits in this country. We have concerns about the fact that we buy more stuff from other folks than they buy from us. The President says we need to double exports. Well how about putting a spotlight on one aspect of the economy that's responsible for about ten percent of all exports — that's agriculture. A record year last year - $137 billion of agricultural products that went all over the world. China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea, and the EU - our top customers. For 50 years - for 50 consecutive years - we've had a trade surplus in agriculture. That means we sell more than we buy. Last year it was a record $37 billion. So that you understand the significance of that, just five years that surplus was under $5 billion, an extraordinary expansion of opportunity. Every billion dollars of ag export sales generates 8,400 jobs at home. Improved farm incomes - expanded job opportunities and a trade surplus. It's an extraordinary story.
And as we look at how to rebuild and reshape the middle class in this country, the formula is pretty clear. Yes, we'll be a government that spends less. But we need to be a government that continues to invest in education and research so that we can produce more. That we become an economy that makes, creates, and innovates again. And that because we are making and innovating and creating things that have never occurred before, the rest of the world wants a piece of that and they purchase those products and that technology. And we create wealth here in the United States and we expand the middle class. Who is doing that? American agriculture.
We invested in the debt-ridden days of the eighties. We went through turmoil. We lost a lot of good producers. It was a tough time. American agriculture could have given up, but no, that's not the way of rural America. You've got a problem, you fix it. You solve it. So they went about reducing debt, investing in these new technologies, expanding capacity, producing more, meeting our needs, and exporting. Bottom line? Last year a record income for farmers. First time in the history of our country we had more than $100 billion of net farm income. It's the formula for the country, and American agriculture has done it. It's a proof point. So food security for us, food security for the rest of the world. A growing middle class, expanded exports. Three pretty good reasons why you might want to major in agriculture.
But when you look at the economy, recognize something that occurs. When someone produces something, it has to be taken to a location where it is stored and then ultimately transported to where it is processed and packaged and marketed and retailed and sold and consumed. Every one of those steps involves employment. Today agriculture is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in America. One out of every 12 jobs, and as we expand productivity, as we figure out new ways to use agricultural products, whole new industries crop up. Whole new pieces of farm machinery need to be developed.
I was in a John Deere facility in Ankeny not long ago giving a speech about the Food, Farm and Jobs bill and it was interesting to me that in this facility they were, even in the difficult economy we faced, they were adding shifts. Why? Because American agriculture was succeeding and farmers were in a position to purchase more farm equipment. And this farm equipment was sophisticated. It was highly high-tech. I'll never forget taking the EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to a farm in Iowa, encouraging her to get out and see what's happening in American agriculture. Bless her heart, she climbed into this tractor and she started looking around at the various instruments in that tractor and she pointed to a little box and she said, "What is that?"
"GPS? Global Positioning?"
"Yeah, it's GPS."
"What's that doing in a tractor?"
"Well, it's called precision agriculture. It's the ability to make sure that we don't waste by being able to drive that tractor in a straight line. Get behind the wheel of a tractor and you drive it and you may start at one end of the field and you may be anywhere from several feet to as much as 30 feet in a different spot at the other end of the field as you are when you began. But with GPS systems the differential is six inches. A lot less wasted seed, chemicals, fertilizer, pesticides, better farm income, better for the environment."
"Didn't know that" she said.
That sophisticated equipment is being made by folks in manufacturing facilities and if you want to look at where the manufacturing jobs are being created and you want to look at where the income and the unemployment is beginning to go down at a faster rate, it's interestingly enough in the heartland of the country. Why is that? Maybe part of it is the auto industry, but I think it's also equally the responsibility of American agriculture. So it's a job-creator. So four good reasons.
How about energy? Think about this: think about the fact that American agriculture is leading the way toward a more diversified energy future for this country, and one that creates job opportunities. Think about the fact that we today are now importing 45 percent of the oil from other countries. Three years ago we were at 62 percent. Now why is that? Many reasons, but one reason is because we are continuing to use more of our rural areas to produce power in renewable ways and we're continuing to expand the use of biofuels in this country.
If you're a consumer and you're concerned about high gas prices you just need to know a recent Iowa State study suggested that your gas prices would be somewhere between 80 cents and $1.30 higher if we hadn't had a biofuel industry in this country. So American farmers and producers, by producing the feedstock for these new fuels, are helping you reduce your costs at the pump even as high as it is. Just think about paying 80 cents to $1.30 more for gas.
Thank an American farmer for the fact that you're not doing that today and that the future holds an opportunity for us to be even further less reliant on foreign sources of oil because we're figuring out how to use livestock waste and crop residue. Woody biomass, perennial grasses, double-cropping systems, ways in which we can expand dramatically the amount of fuel and energy we can produce in rural areas, and that in turn helps to create more employment opportunities. And makes us energy secure. And it's the beginning of a brave new opportunity, a brave new world, in which virtually everything we need to run the economy can be bio- and plant-based. There are 3,100 companies in America today that are producing something - like a chemical, a polymer, a fabric, a fiber - from plant-based, crop residue-based, or livestock-waste based feedstocks. American agriculture is helping to have a rebirth of the chemical industry in this company. It's helping us to move away from petroleum-based plastics into more renewable resources. Things that can be done here in the United States. Just imagine the enormous opportunity to redefine the economy of this country. On the capacity of American agriculture to produce.
I was telling a group earlier that I had a tour of the Ohio State University bio-based operation and they were showing me things that were just amazing. They showed me a dandelion and they said this is the future of rubber. And I said seriously? They said that little creamy stuff in the stem of the dandelion, that can be used to produce rubber. We are doing that here. Imagine. I went to the next location and there was a big dark-black chunk of something on a table and I went to it and I said to the young lady, "What is this?" and she said, "It's asphalt." And I was kind of a smart aleck and I said, "You realize I'm the Secretary of Agriculture, I'm not Ray LaHood the Secretary of Transportation." And she said - kind of a serious young lady - "Well sir, yes, I know who you are and the reason we're showing you this is because the adhesive material for this chunk of asphalt is hog manure." And then, to prove that she was just as much of a smart aleck as I was, she said, "We're testing this on the roads in Ohio. It's doing very well during the winter. The only problem is it makes tires squeal." Just think about this, folks. The capacity to use what has had little value, or limited value, now has unlimited potential. We used to be able to export chemicals in this country, but now because we're such a user of chemicals we have to import them, creating wealth and jobs somewhere else. We can do it now here in America. Why? Because of American agriculture. Because of research in American agriculture. Food security, a safer world, greater export opportunities, job growth, energy security, a new economic paradigm for the country.
Now if you're not convinced by now that that yahoo at Yahoo was a yahoo, let me just make two other points before I take questions.
It's American agriculture that - three other points actually that I'm looking at my notes here - one is that American agriculture and rural America represents the vast majority of our land mass. And therefore, we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to impact the environment of this country. No better of the stewards of the land and water than those who farm and ranch. Why? Because they depend on the land and the water for their livelihood. It's as much a part of them as their family is, and they treat it as such.
Today we have a record amount of acres in conservation programs. We have the capacity to improve and expand dramatically wildlife diversity and the quality of our water, and that's not just important for agriculture and that's not just important for the environment, but it opens up whole new opportunities for outdoor recreation. And lest you think that's not a big deal, outdoor recreation is a $730 billion part of our economy. Just go by a Bass Pro shop and you'll know what I'm talking about. People pay a lot of money for shotguns, fishing gear, canoes, kayaks, and four-wheelers.
If we can expand diversity of wildlife. If we can clean the waters of this country and we create new fishing and hunting and bird-watching and hiking opportunities, we expand outdoor recreation, we expand another opportunity for reconnecting people with their rural routes. So the environment benefits from American agriculture.
But it's the American story that I think is significant, and the American values system that I think is significant. Just think about the fact that 35 percent of all the vegetables that are produced in this country, nearly 50 percent of all of the fruit is at some point in time touched by hired labor, and that most of our food and livestock that's ultimately processed is touched, and inspected, and cut up, and butchered by hired labor. And you know and I know that the substantial percentage of folks that are doing that hard work are immigrants. Some of them are here because they followed the rules and some of them are here because they did not. But they are doing what your family did at some point in time.
I started out this discussion about the fact that I'm an orphan and I don't know what my heritage is, I'm always jealous of people that have the ability to go back hundreds of years and know the stories of their family. But I can tell you that if we interviewed every single person in this auditorium, you'd eventually get to someone from your family that immigrated to this country and probably didn't come in here with a lot of wealth and riches. Probably came here with the clothes on their back and a strong desire to experience America.
That's the same thing that's happening in these farm fields today. These people work jobs that a lot of us wouldn't want to work. They work hard. They work in physically- demanding jobs. They work in dangerous jobs. And why do they do it? They do it to take care of their family. They do it because they believe that if they work hard and they save, their families will have a better life. Their children might be able to go to school and maybe someday one of them might be able to go to Kansas State, get a college degree, and be somebody. That's the essence of the American dream, that before you can dream you have to struggle.
Immigrant populations remind us of that every generation. It's American agriculture in many cases throughout our history that's been the entry point for those who struggle, for those who work hard, for those who save, for those who have a vision - a compelling vision - that drives them through the fatigue of 10, 12, 14-hour days. That allows them to put up with the heat, the humidity, the extraordinary physically demanding work. They do it because they have that compelling vision of a better life for their family. We've got a broken immigration system in this country and we ought to have the guts to fix it. But understand that American agriculture is the gateway. And it is what has provided this country since its beginning with the capacity of a new generation to come in with their willingness to sacrifice, their willingness to save, their willingness to do what's necessary to succeed. And that has kept this country going and kept this country great.
And then there is the generation of Americans who have been here for awhile who live in these rural communities. What kind of people are these folks who live in these small towns on these farms and ranches? They're great people. They're great Americans. How do I know that? Rural America represents 16 percent of America's population, but nearly 40 percent of the men and women in uniform today come from rural America. Forty percent of those kids we're welcoming back from Iraq, forty percent of those kids that we hope come back from Afghanistan whole, and they're from these small towns.
I was sharing with Senator Roberts, I've got a 20-year-old nephew who's a Marine. He grew up in a family where his dad's a lawyer, his mom works at a college. They've got plenty of dough. Smart kid, B-student. He didn't have to go in the Marines. He chose. Why did he choose, because he didn't have any other opportunities? Heck, he could have gone to just about any college in the country. His parents could have paid for it. Why did he do that? Why do a disproportionate number of people from rural America go into the military? Because they're raised in a farm community and they're surrounded by people who understand something very basic about the land: you can't keep taking from it. There's not a farmer in this audience that could stay in business very long if they didn't give something back to the land that they farm. They replenish it, they re-nourish it. And when they do the land keeps producing for them. They understand that it's a bargain, it's a give-and-take. And when you grow up surrounded by that value system you understand a country is no different. You can't keep taking from it. You've got to give something back.
You know as a Governor, I had many great responsibilities but probably the greatest responsibility and the greatest privilege was to be the commander-in-chief of National Guard troops. Unfortunately in time of war you have the difficult challenge of seeing people off to war and them welcoming them back and that's an emotional event unlike any you will ever experience. But there's also that sad reality that some of them do not come back and your responsibility as a Governor is to reach out to families and to express on behalf of a grateful citizenry the sacrifice the family has made.
Let me finish with one story. Bruce Smith was a 20-year veteran of the Iowa National Guard. Bruce lived in a small town called West Liberty. West Liberty, by the way, is about half Hispanic, half Caucasian. There's a processing plant there - turkey processing plant. Bruce had a pretty decent job, he had a beautiful wife, two children. His country called him to Iraq; this would be his third tour of duty.
Bruce was that guy in the National Guard that all the young guys went to because he'd been around forever. He was a helicopter pilot, his job was to ferry troops from one part of Baghdad to another. Senator Roberts, you've been to Baghdad during that period of time and it may seem strange that you have to actually helicopter people from one neighborhood to another but it was so dangerous you couldn't drive. So he was ferrying a group one day and his chopper was hit with a handheld missile. And as I've been told by the Adjutant General from the radio discussion, he had a brief moment and he had very limited capacity to maneuver that chopper as it was going down, and he had a choice between maneuvering in a way that probably could have increased his chances of survival and that of his co-pilot but probably put the folks on board at greater risk or vice- versa, put himself at greater risk and maybe increase the chance of some of those people walking away. He did what he was taught to do. He did what kids in rural America understand is their responsibility: he put himself at risk.
He died. His copilot died. Seventeen people lived. Seventeen people walked away from that crash.
I had to talk to his wife. I can tell you, you give a lot of speeches, you give a lot of lectures, and you give a lot of talks when you're a politician. But you don't have the words. Nobody's ever written the words that will convey to somebody that you have any understanding or appreciation for what they must be going through since their life got turned around within a 24 to 48 hour period and they are told that the husband they'd married and have loved for 20 years was gone and never coming back. That you, with a high school degree, will now have to raise your two children on your own. So I talked to this wonderful woman and said I'm terribly sorry. I struggled, I talked about thoughts and prayers and I just couldn't find the words. And this wonderful woman interrupts me in the middle of it and she says, "Governor, I appreciate your call but I've got this figured out."
"Figured out, how could you possibly have it figured out?"
She said, "The way I have it figured, those 17 people who lived that day needed Bruce more in that split second than I will need him the rest of my life."
And I realized then, as I've realized many times as I've traveled around rural areas of the country, that I was in the presence of greatness. Bruce understood he had a responsibility and a duty to give back to his country and to put himself on the line. His wonderful spouse understood that she too had a responsibility and that sometimes countries call for greater sacrifice from some families than others. And that family was prepared to make that sacrifice because they were raised in an area of the country that understood that bargain, that responsibility, that two-way street that a country and its citizens have. And that's a result of agriculture and the values system within agriculture.
So don't tell me that a degree in agriculture is useless. Don't tell me that we ought not to be appreciating and celebrating and acknowledging the extraordinary contribution of farm families around this country. Don't tell me it's just an afterthought. Don't tell me that it's something that we ought not to appreciate and just cherish and nourish.
And to the young people who are here, I leave you with a challenge. You have this unbelievable opportunity to reacquaint people in this country with the extraordinary work of American farmers, ranchers, and producers. You have this enormous, exciting, challenging future where you not just can reshape agriculture, not just gain acceptance of these great science breakthroughs that will allow us to feed the world and our own country, not just the capacity to make us less reliant on countries that don't like us for our energy, but you have the capacity to re-shape the economy so that it's sustainable, environmentally friendly, creates jobs, and brings renewed faith and interest and hope and opportunity to rural parts of this country. And in doing so you can keep that values system — that American struggle and that American bargain that I just talked about — alive.
You have that power. Use it. Don't just simply focus on your small piece. Understand that you are an ambassador for American agriculture and for all the good that it stands for. Don't be bashful. Don't be humble about this. You've got to tell folks. You've got to broadcast it. You've got to share it. Don't have the conversation be insular with just within agriculture. We've got to talk to the other 98 percent. We've got to tell them that the reason this country is strong, the reason this country is great, and the reason this country has an extraordinary future began, continues, and will always be because we have farm families. We are extraordinarily blessed and you have a mission. Seize it.
Thank you very much.