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by intern Shauna Nep

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been criticized by some in Big Ag for his promotion of small-scale farmers and local food systems. And yet–he has been passionately defending conventional producers conventional producers recent Senate hearings. As well as small-scale farmers. Some are upset with Vilsack’s centrist attitude, but Vilsack says that his approach embraces all agriculture and is not about choosing sides, “I have two sons,” he says, “and I love them both.”

In his defense of conventional agriculture, Vilsack emphasized the “exciting potential” of using agricultural waste for biofuels, which he has described as the “key to revitalizing the economy.” Vilsack has also asserted that we owe farmers thanks for how little Americans pay for food, saying that while the average American spends about 10% of their income on food, other developed countries pay closer to 25% or 30%. [To listen, click here.]

At the same time, Vilsack continues to strongly defend small and mid-scale farms and local food systems. In an exchange with Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss, Vilsack was asked where production agriculture and commodity crops fit into USDA’s focus on the five pillars for the next farm bill (regional food systems, rural broadband, renewable energy, conservation and ecosystem market incentives). Vilsack responded by acknowledging the importance of global trade markets, but also by defending local food systems:

“It’s also about expanding domestic markets, and creating opportunities. That’s one of the reasons why we are focused on trying to better link local production with local consumption; this is not just about very very small operations. This is about production agriculture. The ability of schools, institutional purchasers of food, to be able access things locally. Sometimes you’d be surprised that there are folks in small communities who are purchasing food from far far away that don’t realize or appreciate what’s being grown and raised in their area. That’s why we’re focusing on trying to rebuild the supply chain with local slaughter facilities and mobile slaughter facilities with storage facilities, also creating job opportunities.” [To listen to Vilsack’s response, click here].

Can Vilsack promote the local food system while still supporting Big Ag? Post your comments below.