Vilsack talks up a prized asset

By Walt Braun

Kansas is a pretty good place for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to extol the virtues of farming, and Tom Vilsack made the most of his opportunity during a Landon Lecture on Tuesday at McCain Auditorium.

The “yahoo from Yahoo” who decided that agriculture was the most useless college degree a student could choose gave Secretary Vilsack plenty of fodder. Not that he needed it. The former Iowa governor developed a keen appreciation for agriculture long before he took over the Cabinet post.

Among his points was that year in and year out, agriculture has been one of America’s great economic assets. He noted that last year, America exported agricultural products valued at $137 billion, making last year the 50th consecutive year of a trade surplus in agriculture. That success doesn’t just generate goodwill in the many countries that benefit from U.S. food supplies, it also generates jobs in the United States, a reality that shouldn’t be overlooked during economic downturns.

Food producers might be a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, but one out of 12 jobs in this country is associated directly or indirectly with agriculture.

No less important, as Secretary Vilsack observed, is that “American is food secure… If all else fails,” he said, “if the ports shut down and we find ourselves in some massive conflagration, we’re going to be able to feed ourselves.”

Although he didn’t discuss NBAF — the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility — during his speech, he underscored the structure’s importance to maintaining the security of the nation’s food supply during remarks afterward. At NBAF, to be built near the Biological Research Institute at Kansas State University, scientists will perform research into deadly pathogens that could threaten the food supply. Appropriately, Secretary Vilsack sees the $650 million facility as a national asset, not simply as a local project that would benefit KSU or even the state.

Persuading members of Congress of its importance and making them aware of design improvements that have reduced to nearly negligible the risk of a release of deadly pathogens could help restore funding and put the project back on track.

Nor surprisingly, he urged students in the audience at McCain to be ambassadors for agriculture for fellow Americans who are ignorant about it. “You have this unbelievable opportunity to reacquaint people in this country with the extraordinary work of American farmers, ranchers and producers,” he said.

Season after season, decade after decade, the story of American agriculture and the people behind it is extraordinary indeed.

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