The farming industry has a sustainability problem, according to United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. In a seminar talk at Cornell on Wednesday, Sept. 6, Vilsack explained the current state of farming in the country and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts to assist small farmers, in addition to the importance of agriculture colleges, like the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to collaborate regionally on the resurgence of agriculture.
Vilsack, who served for eight years during the Obama administration and was nominated by President Joe Biden in 2021, addressed a packed Stocking Hall conference room for his talk where New York State Officials such as State Senator Lea Webb and New York State Commissioner of Agriculture Richard Ball were in attendance.
Through a whiteboard and flowcharts, Vilsack explained the main challenge farmers in the United States face today — the inability to sustain themselves. He noted that between 2017 and 2023, 39,700 farms had to close and around 6.9 million farming acres were lost. He later added that the top 7.5 percent of farms earned 89 percent of all farming income last year, while the other 92.5 percent — which represents around 2 million farms — take 11 percent.
Vilsack emphasized the importance of adapting to a carbon-neutral environment as part of the Biden administration’s commitment to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. He highlighted that 10 percent of all of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture. Vilsack stated that the costs for adapting more environmentally conscious energy forms should not be put on farmers, who are already struggling to make profits.
Vilsack also spoke of current programs recently implemented by the USDA to develop a more regional approach to farming and support struggling farmers, such as the Regional Food Business Centers Program launched earlier this year. He stressed that the involvement of land grant universities — which include Cornell — in the efforts to address these issues was crucial because they could provide support for farmers.
“The challenge to the land grant university is figuring out ways [to expand efforts] to make it easy for farmers to break [the research] down and to train folks who will be part of the regional food supply,” Vilsack said.
The first time speaking at a land grant university, Vilsack revealed he chose Cornell to deliver this seminar because of the innovative research and initiatives started by the University to address the challenges of the agricultural industry.
“I picked Cornell as the first land grant university to make this presentation for basically a single reason — you are leaders, you understand the significance and power of your reach,” Vilseck said. “When Cornell is doing something, it is not unusual to see other land grant universities embrace it.”
The event was followed by a question and answer section where CALS Dean Benjamin Houlton presented Vilsack with questions on various issues, including indigenous farming and the history of Native American displacement by land grant universities. In recent years, local indigenous farming communities felt the effects of the struggles of the farming industry, suffering from the low revenues that threaten the sustainability of farming.
He responded by highlighting some of the programs the Biden Administration has implemented to support farmers who have historically been excluded from federal benefits. Vilsack explained how by making direct connections with these farming communities, his office can better help farmers access loans. He also mentioned some changes he has made at the administrative level, including appointing the USDA’s first permanent Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
The talk spoke about the importance of New York State agriculture, which resonated with the officials that were in the audience. Webb attended the event to hear what resources would be available to local farmers, considering that Tompkins county is home to 523 farms.
“How do we expand our view, our farmers and their ability to not only contribute food to our county, but also help us to address environmental issues?” Webb said in an interview with The Sun.
In the interview, Webb emphasized the importance of helping local farmers attain the money designated to them by federal programs. She explained that many “mom-and-pop farms” are often left out of such grants, primarily because farmers are unaware of the resources available to them.
“[Farmers] are focused on doing the work — but how would [they] know that there’s a grant that exists that could help [them] in expanding [their] ability to produce?” Webb said.
Webb also echoed the necessity of research and innovation in addressing both local and global environmental issues, calling on the University for assistance.
“As we continue to grapple with climate change and food [security] — how do we keep bringing those respective areas together? Cornell plays a significant role in that, so it’s important that we continue to support this institution.”