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It’s time for Vilsack to stop appeasing Big Ag and start fighting for Iowa

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It’s time for Vilsack to stop appeasing Big Ag and start fighting for Iowa

Feb 24, 2024 | 9:00 am ET
By Art Cullen
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It’s time for Vilsack to stop appeasing Big Ag and start fighting for Iowa
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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack talks trade at a Woodward farm on Aug. 18, 2022. (Photo by Jared Strong/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack complained last week of getting batted about, left and right, from one day to the next. It can be lonely at the top, so you rope-a-dope your way along trying to stay afoot.

He referred to a protester Tuesday at the Ag Outlook Forum who thinks USDA is a corporate sell-out, and to banging his head against the wall Wednesday with knuckleheads on the House Agriculture Committee who can’t muster a farm bill on time.

The Ag Census reports that Iowa farm sizes grew along with net income through 2022. Dairy and livestock sectors continued to consolidate. Just a few players dominate the industry. Young farmers can’t find a foothold. Soil losses are frightening. Pork exports are expected to eclipse poultry in 10 years as Asian demand grows exponentially. We can’t handle the manure we already have — just take a sniff outside and don’t dare dip in the river.

Vilsack’s lament comes somewhat from his own making.

The former Iowa governor believes that “climate-smart” agriculture built around resiliency and sustainability will lead to diversity in production. He also understands that money greases political wheels. When Biden took office, Vilsack lined up all the big players in agribusiness for his “climate-smart” initiative — Cargill, Tyson, ADM, everybody who’s anybody. They issued joint statements with the support of the House and Senate agriculture committee leaders.

It hasn’t worked.

The House halted the farm bill over food stamps. Funding is frozen. At the committee hearing last week, Vilsack was under fire for fear that climate action will heist property rights. The message from the corporatists to the Capitol to get smart on climate got a wink and a no-reply.

Nor has the USDA “climate-smart” money directed by Vilsack so far — some $20 billion — made an appreciable difference in Iowa surface water or air quality. Young farmers are not getting a boot on the ladder to success. The integrators get theirs, while folks in Storm Lake get ballooning water bills as our wells are sucked dry.

Vilsack thought he could bring the Republicans along. They would rather fight than eat. They can’t decide on the border, on Ukraine, not even on a farm bill that the Farmers Union and Cargill could settle for.

Perhaps a pivot is in order.

The farm bill architecture got us into this fix. Give the Freedom Caucus what it wants: Rip it up and see where the pieces land.

Tell Big Ag to stuff it. Say to hell with subsidizing huge corporations with money that is supposed to get grass strips planted along the Raccoon River. Quit indirectly subsidizing pork exports to China at the expense of Iowa’s soil base. Tell them they don’t need our money to build a CO2 pipeline. Use executive authority to enroll every eligible applicant into the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Conservation Reserve Program — both popular and suppressed. Tie crop insurance to stewardship.

The ag census chronicles the failure of the existing farm bill architecture. The House hearing last week illustrates the failure of the Vilsack corporate-based political strategy to prop up its sagging frame.

With Speaker Mike Johnson at the rostrum, how can we see a way clear to a farm bill before the November election? It is nigh on impossible.

Wouldn’t it be novel if Vilsack went full-bore for Iowa? For clean water and air, for independent livestock production, for open and transparent markets, for healthy and diverse rural communities where you can make a decent living. Iowa does not have that now. Not, at least, from a Sac or Pocahontas county perspective.

The reason to send all those Iowa boys to Washington is so they can deliver some of that bacon home to where it is fattened and sliced. What about Storm Lake’s failing wells brought on by agri-industrial demand? Who pays for that? What about our lost soil — where is the accounting? The big boys may be flush, but what about the rest of us? Why should our cheap corn be used to undermine the very foundation of Iowa — its soil, water and people?

Joe Biden could win Iowa with a campaign like that. Vilsack once did.

Production agriculture is hanging its friend Vilsack out to dry politically. Agribusiness claims to support resiliency and security, but it funds the Ag Committee that fails to produce a farm bill. It lets the knuckleheads box Vilsack around.

He will never miss a meal if he tells all of them to sit and spin on this in defense of Iowa’s values. That’s what we need. Vilsack is capable of it if he could summon the courage of his stated vision.

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column first appeared, as well as Art Cullen’s Notebook on Substack. It is republished here as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

Editor’s note: Please consider subscribing to the collaborative and its member writers to support their work.