Secretary of Agriculture Tom VilsackFarmers’ growing participation in voluntary conservation programs is improving water quality and reducing soil erosion in Iowa and other states and that success story needs to be spotlighted to the general public, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last week.

"We do know from our assessments that nitrates and phosphorus are indeed being reduced by voluntary conservation, and I think it’s important for us to keep hammering that notion, because that is certainly not the perception of most of the public," Vilsack said in a Jan. 13 breakfast speech to Iowa Farm Bureau members attending the American Farm Bureau Convention in San Diego.

The former Iowa governor also highlighted the importance of agricultural trade, outlined progress on multi-national trade agreements and expressed frustration over Congressional inaction on reworking the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) provisions for meat, which have been declared out of compliance by the World Trade Organization (WTO) after complaints by Mexico and Canada.

The U.S. Department of Agri­culture (USDA), along with state agencies in Iowa, are investing nearly $100 million each year in efforts to improve water quality, Vilsack said. And he emphasized that government investment is being more than matched by farmers, who are voluntarily putting up their own money to plant cover crops, install buffer strips and adopt other practices shown to improve water quality and reduce erosion, he said.

Making the public aware

It’s extremely important that the general public understands and appreciates the work that farmers are doing to improve water quality and save soil, as well as the investments in conservation that farmers are making out of their own pockets, Vilsack said.

"You need to show them what conservation is and tell them this is how much it costs and this is how much I am paying," he said. "Then tell the public that I’m doing this voluntarily; no one is telling me to do this. I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do, and by the way, here is an assessment done by the USDA that show the nitrates are down and soil erosion is being reduced."

A unique story

Farmers’ voluntary conservation efforts are a unique story in America, the U.S. agriculture secretary said. "Other people aren’t doing these things. The golf course guys aren’t doing it. The lawn care folks aren’t doing it. And industry is not doing it."

It’s also important for the public to understand that, despite what critics of the voluntary efforts often contend, improving water quality is a complex problem that can’t be solved overnight, Vilsack said.

"The condition of the water didn’t happen last year or the year before. It has evolved over a long time," he said. "There is no quick fix here. It’s going to take a concerted and committed effort, but we are moving in the right direction."

Once the real story on conservation and water quality sinks into the public’s consciousness, policy makers and critics will likely change their attitudes, Vilsack said. "I think they will say they want to find a way to work together on this."

Breaking trade barriers

Vilsack also told the Iowa audience that the USDA is committed to breaking down barriers to international trade, including negotiating the far-reaching Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to link the United States with countries in Asia and South America as well as Australia and New Zealand. Once passed, the TPP will help American farmers tap the fast-growing Asian markets.

"We need to get serious about passing this trade agreement so we can tap into the Asian market," Vilsack said. "The middle class there will grow to over 2 billion people by the year 2030. If you think you are doing good business there today, just think what it would be like if you had two to three times the customer base."

American trade negotiators are working hard to get fair deals for farmers, including pushing Japan to back down on its demands for protections on pork and other products, Vilsack said.

In addition, he urged the Iowans to support Trade Promotion Auth­ority for President Barack Obama, so the deal doesn’t get bogged down in Congress.

The USDA and other federal agencies are also moving forward with a proposed trade deal with Europe, the agriculture secretary said. That includes working with the Europeans to accept the safety of biotech crops and ditch efforts to protect their farmers by claiming that only certain areas can use common product names, like parmesan cheese or bologna, he said.

"It’s a heavy lift, but an important one, and agriculture will play a disproportionately large role."

COOL frustration

The ongoing controversy around the COOL law is frustrating, Vilsack said in response to a question from Andy Hora, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation District 7 director.

"I’m between a rock and a hard place with the WTO and Congress on COOL," Vilsack said. "There is just not a regulatory fix for this."

He urged Congress to rework the COOL law to make it comply with WTO rules. Otherwise, the secretary said, there’s going to be retaliation from Canada and Mexico that will hit a variety of agricultural products, not just meat.