Agriculture chief fosters better relationship between EPA and farmers

Regular meetings planned nationwide to improve communication between environmental officials and crop producers.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's handling of agricultural issues on Monday, but he acknowledged EPA has made some mistakes in handling farm issues and said he is trying to help farmers in their relationship with the agency.

In the question-and-answer session after a speech to the National Association of Conservation Districts board, Vilsack said EPA often finds itself between laws written by Congress and lawsuits filed regarding those laws.

But Vilsack believes EPA officials do not "get into the countryside" enough and do not communicate well with farmers. In that context, Vilsack said, he has set up a regular series of meetings with Jackson and representatives of livestock, row crop and specialty crop producers.

But Vilsack said he found that when EPA analyzed the potential for corn-based ethanol as an alternative fuel in reducing carbon emissions, EPA did not understand that corn productiion had risen dramatically in the past 15 years. Once EPA officials were made aware of the increased productivity, the agency ruled that corn-based ethanol could play a more positive role, Vilsack said.

Vilsack also said the Obama administration is holding listening sessions around the country on its Great American Outdoors Initiative, which is intended to encourage more Americans to participate in rural recreation activities. Vilsack said that at a recent event in Montana, he heard concerns from ranchers that outsiders are building million-dollar houses on what has been grazing land and said the initiative was not designed to take land out of agricultural production.

Vilsack said he wants to focus the 2012 farm bill on encouraging young Americans to go into farming. Although economists for decades have said the country has too many farmers and encouraged consolidation of farms to increase efficiency, Vilsack said he would like to find a way for communities to encourage farm youth and other young people to go into the industry, at least on a part-time basis.

He added that the administration's efforts on energy development in rural areas and its "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative are intended to stave off population losses. "We can't [continue] this extraordinary out-migration," Vilsack said.