Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies on Feb. 17. Among his prepared comments:
"I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you to discuss the administration's priorities for the Department of Agriculture and provide you an overview of the president's 2013 budget.
"The president and I believe that this is a make or break moment for the middle class. What's at stake is the basic American promise that if you work hard, you can do well enough to raise a family, own a home, and put a little away for retirement. To keep that promise alive, we need an economy that makes, creates and innovates -- an economy that's built to last.
"When I made my first appearance before this subcommittee, our country and the Department of Agriculture faced historic challenges. Over the past three years, USDA has worked with the Obama administration to respond to the economic crises of 2008, put Americans back to work, and to rebuild economic security for the middle class.
"USDA has supported farmers, ranchers and growers so that last year they enjoyed record farm income. We have focused on creating jobs and building a foundation for future economic growth, especially in rural America, where unemployment is falling than in other parts of the country.
"The president's 2013 USDA budget helps us to continue this progress, supporting robust farm income and good jobs in rural communities.
"To help sustain record farm income, we'll invest in research and development to improve agricultural productivity. The budget makes a 23 percent increase in funding for our premier competitive grants program to support the most worthy projects and continues support for in-house research and the land grant universities. We'll continue our efforts to combat destructive pests and disease that threaten crops and livestock.
"To encourage thriving markets for our farm products aboard, we continue funding that helped make last year a record for agricultural exports, driving farm income and supporting 1.1 million American jobs. We'll reduce trade barriers and aggressively promote 'grown in America' products. At home, we're working to encourage the development of a bio-based economy, where what we grow and raise is used to make fuel, chemicals and consumer goods to complement our traditional production of food, feed, and fiber. Our work to promote local and regional food systems provides another opportunity for income growth for farmers of all sizes.
"The 2013 budget will increase the record number of acres of working land in conservation programs, rewarding farmers, ranchers and growers for cleaning our air and water, preserving soil and wildlife habitat.
"Finally, farmers need to know that one bad crop won't put them out of business, so this budget maintains a strong safety net with disaster assistance, income support, and farm loans. We'll preserve efforts to modernize systems that will allow farmers and ranchers to access many of our programs online at their convenience. The budget's full funding for the expected requirements for the (USDA’s) three major nutrition assistance programs will also help support the bottom line for America's producers.
"At the same time, we cannot afford to let our foot off the gas from investments that are helping create jobs in rural America. This budget continues to fund programs that – over the past three years in rural America – have: helped more than 450,000 families buy or refinance a home; invested in over 6,250 critical community facilities projects like schools, hospitals, police and fire stations; helped improve 5,100 water and waste water systems; and provided grants and loans to help over 50,000 small businesses create and save 266,000 jobs.
"To promote the domestic production of renewable energy and create good jobs in rural communities, we'll invest in farmers, scientists, entrepreneurs working to develop a nationwide biofuels economy. We'll also continue our partnership with the U.S. Navy and Department of Energy to boost the production of domestically produced aviation biofuels for use by the military.
"Our budget also recognizes that successful and effective rural economic development will occur on a regional basis, working through existing programs to fund regional projects and strategic regional planning activities.
"Since fiscal year 2010, USDA has seen our operating budget cut by $3 billion, or 12 percent. This came on top of a $4 billion contribution to help pay down the debt.
"To manage these reductions while preserving the success we're seeing in the countryside, we've had to take a close look at the way we do business with less money, a smaller staff, and more complex programs. Following a department-wide review of operations, we created a Blueprint for Stronger Service to make USDA work better and more efficiently for the American people. We found savings in areas like technology, travel, supplies and facilities. We've been able to avoid the interruptions in service that come with furloughs and employee layoffs.
"Like families and businesses across the country, USDA is finding new ways to innovate while making investments that help drive economic growth in the long term. At the end of the day, we want farmers working hard to make a good living, and we want to offer good, middle class jobs for the 50 million people who call rural America home.
"I look forward to working with this committee as we develop an appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013 that allows USDA to focus on these priorities -- one that ensures that we keep our commitment to the customers we serve each day: farmers, ranchers, small businesses and the families that live, work and make their homes in rural America."