Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during a Fresno visit that without passage of the Food, Farm and Jobs Bill and immigration reform, rural America, farmers and consumers will suffer.
Vilsack who spoke to a packed house at Fresno State's Satellite Student Union Tuesday said the legislation is a cornerstone to helping improve the economy, strengthen the agriculture industry and provide new opportunities for young people.
Standing in the way, however, is a divided Congress that has continued to disagree on how deep to cut the food stamp program -- a major provision of the Farm Bill, while House Speaker John Boehner has said immigration reform won't happen this year.
During his nearly hour-long talk, Vilsack said the Food, Farm and Jobs Bill, otherwise known as the Farm Bill, is not just about helping farmers. It provides funding for conservation programs, research, innovation, energy production and food assistance.
"Every single American benefits from this bill in one way or another," Vilsack said to a receptive audience.
More than 100 people were at Tuesday's speech that was attended by students, faculty, farmers and agriculture industry leaders.
Clovis farmer Pat Ricchiuti was encouraged to see Vilsack make a swing through the Valley. He said many farmers in the area benefit from several USDA programs, including assistance in funding water conservation practices.
"It is so important for us to stay on the cutting edge of irrigation technology," Ricchiuti said. "We need some help."
Amber Perkinson drove from Bakersfield to hear Vilsack speak. The Kern county college student said she was humbled by Vilsack's visit.
"I learned so much about what it is going to take to help improve this economy," said Perkinson, who is an agriculture business major. "I want to help educate people about how to grow their own food in sustainable way and listening to the agriculture secretary made me realize how important that is."
Vilsack said the five-year Farm Bill that expired this year can support several important programs, including developing more regional and local food systems for entrepreneurial farmers. Related to that, Vilsack said the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday approved 71 new grants in 42 states for Farm to School programs.
Consumers could also face higher prices for milk, butter and cheese, if the Farm Bill is not approved, Vilsack said. Failure to pass the Farm Bill could trigger a 1949 law that sets a much higher price for the government purchase of cheese, butter and other dairy products.
Turning to immigration, Vilsack said Congress has before it a comprehensive plan that will increase border security, provide a path to legal residency for up to 1.2 million undocumented workers while also giving agriculture and other industries a stable supply of workers.
Bringing people out of the shadows will also pay dividends to the economy through more tax revenue and increased Social Security contributions -- possibly as much as $300 million to the Social Security system if immigration reform passes, he said.
Without immigration reform, Vilsack said, farmers could be forced to plant fewer acres or move their operations out of the country.
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