Tom Vilsack deftly avoids answering questions about what he plans to do after his term as U.S. Agriculture Secretary ends, although Optimist International may want to give the former Iowa governor a call.

Even with commodity prices and farm income slumping from record highs, Vilsack pounded the optimism theme throughout a speech recently at the Commodity Classic in New Orleans.

"In the seven years I’ve been Agriculture Secretary, I’ve never been more optimistic about agriculture than I am today," he said.

That’s because, Vilsack said, farmers today are producing 170 percent more food on 26 percent less land and with 22 million fewer farmers compared to 1950.

"I’m in the presence of the greatest farmers the world has ever seen. That’s why I’m optimistic," Vilsack said.

His praise for farmers didn’t stop there, as he trumpeted the role farmers have played in providing food and security to the United States throughout its history.

"It was farmers who made sure this country was not dependent on anybody for food. It is farmers who are the lynchpin, at the heart and soul of this country. We are the greatest country on Earth for one simple reason in my opinion — because we’ve got the greatest farmers," he said.

Vilsack was appointed as the country’s 30th Agriculture Secretary in January 2009, making his tenure in that position the longest in more than half a century. He deflected questions about his legacy, saying, "You guys (the media) can decide what that is."

Creating consistency

However, Vilsack said he believes his longevity has helped bring consistency to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as he listed off accomplishments in conservation, school nutrition, rural investments and agriculture exports that occurred under his leadership.

"We’ve had a remarkable seven years," Vilsack said, noting that he hopes his successor will also establish some longevity with the department. "Consistency is important."

As for his future, Vilsack bluntly said, "The honest answer is I don’t know." He hinted that a return to Iowa may be in the offing, smiling as he shared a story about his grandson wandering over to his house in Iowa, where Vilsack lives near one of his two sons, early one morning. "My grandkids are a draw, a magnet. I want to see them grow up."

Vilsack also said he wants to somehow repay the people of Iowa, where he went from being a small-town lawyer in Mount Pleasant to state legislator to governor and ultimately U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. "I feel very thankful to the people of Iowa for the opportunities they’ve given me," he said.