Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack wants farmers and ranchers to stop being reactive to "wedge issues," such as opposition to proposed regulation, and adopt a "proactive" and "progressive" message about agriculture.
Speaking at last week's Farm Journal Forum, Vilsack noted that rural America is far less politically relevant than was once the case. He accurately observed that, like most Americans, most members of Congress don't understand why certain issues are so important to the farm and ranch community.
While rural America has lost a lot of its political clout, farmers and ranchers remain extremely relevant in modern-day America -- especially around meal time.
Ag and rural interests need to do a better job both in explaining themselves to customers far removed from the land and in exploiting new economic opportunities that present themselves. We agree agriculture needs to build some political alliances with urban and suburban legislators.
We think he was off target, however, in criticizing ag's fear of regulation.
"I can't tell you how frustrating it's been to hear the conversation that we've had for the last couple years about regulations," he said in reference to proposals on dust and child labor, "regulations that either didn't exist, weren't going to exist, or that were taken care of."
Vilsack wants farmers to stop wasting political capital on legislative efforts to preemptively prohibit the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency and the Labor and Interior departments from regulating you.
It is true that the EPA never formally proposed dust rules that would have impacted farming operations, but it was having conversations with ag stakeholders about the potential impacts of such rules when the hue and cry was raised. Vilsack himself took the possibility seriously enough to meet with EPA administrator Lisa Jackson to voice his concerns.
And there's no doubt the Labor Department was well down the path to proposing regulations that would have prevented teens from working on their parents' farms and ranches. It made no secret about its intentions.
In September 2011 it said it wanted to put farm child labor laws on par with other workplaces. The rules would have forever changed what it meant to grow up on a farm and ended employment opportunities for young people in rural areas.
The department backed off, and the administration promised to refrain from such restrictions while President Barack Obama is in office, only after the ag community and a bipartisan group of farm state legislators raised hell.
Vilsack would have us believe that these were nothing but the product of House Republicans' imagination. Really?
These and a host of other proposals were seriously discussed, and failed to become policy, or were radically changed, because the administration feared their impact on electoral politics, not because the regulators thought better of their plans. In a second term we expect little of the same restraint.
Farmers and ranchers need not apologize for looking out after their own interests. It's becoming increasingly clear there are few people in the administration pressing their case.