Vilsack pitches ‘forward-thinking’ approach to agriculture in visit to Harrisburg

‘Frankly, a lot of what we’re doing is already being done in Pennsylvania,’ Vilsack said

By: - August 18, 2023 5:15 pm

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at Harrisburg University on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023 (Harrisburg University photo).

HARRISBURG — U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Harrisburg University on Friday to highlight federal economic and agricultural investments in Pennsylvania.

Vilsack, a Pittsburgh native, shared his vision for supporting small- and mid-sized agricultural producers through the USDA’s climate-smart commodities initiative, which emphasizes income diversification as well as local partnerships and assistance programs. 

“It’s designed to understand that in order for those small folks to stay in business, they can’t just sell a commodity, they have to have multiple sources of income coming in,” Vilsack explained. 

Vilsack described this approach as “positive” and “forward-thinking” for its ability to allow producers to pivot while also creating multiple streams of income. 

“If commodity prices happened to be low in that particular year, maybe the ecosystem service market credit they’re getting helps them stay in business, or maybe the fact that they’ve got a contract with the local school allows them to get a little bit more for the milk that they’re producing, or maybe they’re part of a co-op that’s selling electricity to the REC that allows them to get a check from the REC every quarter that keeps them in business,” Vilsack said. “That’s what this is designed to create the multiple income centers for that farming operation.”

To get the word out about the initiative, Vilsack said he is “hopeful” that universities with agriculture programs will develop curricula with income diversification efforts in mind, and teach students where — and how — to acquire assistance and resources. 

In addition to encouraging local business chambers and development authorities to help with outreach, by sharing information about USDA programs and diversification initiatives such as local partnerships, Vilsack said regional USDA officials are also being deployed to help producers access resources at the local level.

“When you are interested in developing a local regional food system, whether it’s farm-to-school, farm-to-table farms, farmers’ market, local opportunities, food bank, or whatever, these folks at these regional food centers are will be able to provide you the technical information and the financial assistance information that allows you to know exactly how to go about creating that opportunity, and where you can get financing for it,” Vilsack said. “So, we are providing multiple ways in which people can get information about these various opportunities.”

Positioning Pa. for the future

Vilsack told the Capital-Star that Pennsylvania is well-positioned for the climate-smart commodities initiative, pointing to regional resource centers for producers and state level programs administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. 

“Frankly, a lot of what we’re doing is already being done in Pennsylvania,” Vilsack said, praising Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding for his efforts.

Some of what we’re doing, we’ve patterned after what he’s done, and some of what he’s doing is patterned after what we’ve done,” Vilsack said. “So there’s a good synergy between the two.”

Farm Bill 

With the existing federal farm bill set to expire on Sept. 30 and negotiations between lawmakers still ongoing, Vilsack said the department has yet to see draft legislation for a new farm bill from either chamber. 

As the deadline approaches, congressional lawmakers have two options, according to Vilsack: Pass a continuation of the existing farm bill or allow the current bill to lapse until a new agreement is reached. 

If lawmakers choose to let the bill lapse, smaller programs, such as the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and the Urban, Indoor, and Other Emerging Agriculture Production Research, Education, and Extension program, whose funding comes strictly from farm bill allocations, would have to cease operations. 

“My hope is that they figure out something that allows us to continue doing as much good as we can with those programs,” Vilsack said. 

“I think Chairman [Glenn “G.T.”] Thompson on the House side, I think he’s very earnest in his desire to have a bipartisan bill,” Vilsack told the Capital-Star. “And I think his hope is that he has a draft for the rest of us to look at by the end of September.”

Farm bill timeline in flux as a messy September for Congress nears

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.