CEDAR RAPIDS — Former Iowa governor and U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack is challenging Iowans to commit to creating a zero-emissions farming economy — one he believes will attract young professionals, boost incomes and preserve rural communities.
Speaking Thursday in a keynote address to The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas symposium, Vilsack asked the audience to envision working toward a future where what is grown and raised in the state is done so without adding emissions.
“It would allow Iowa to create a reputation, a place people would want to come to learn, to understand and to emulate,” he said.
Vilsack, a Democrat who served as the U.S. secretary of agriculture from 2009 to 2017, said the initiative would mean adopting “significant investments” in soil conservation including ways to contain carbon.
It could involve cover crops — a crop planted after harvesting to manage soil erosion and quality — and expanding no-till farming, or growing crops from year to year with minimal disruptions to the soil.
For the dairy industry, Vilsack suggested looking at new ways to profitably manage manure, including manufacturing products from it.
“What if we can create manure that can be made into pellets, bagged, stored, transported and injected into the soil in a way that provides greater soil health with less concerns in the community?” he asked.
Vilsack envisioned “showcase farms” being established in the next three to five years that operate with zero or even negative net emissions.
Showcase farms would let farmers “peer over the fence” and show what’s possible.
It would take longer, however, for Iowa to adopt policies that support such zero-emission farming. Vilsack said it could take four or more years for the Iowa Legislature to get something started.
By 2040 or 2050, Vilsack said, Iowa could lead the United States, and the United States could in turn lead the world “to an agriculture that no longer emits 9 to 14 percent of greenhouse gases.”
“For my farm friends, here’s a news flash,” Vilsack said. “You’re not going to be able to sell what you grow unless you can convince consumers in this country that it’s sustainably produced.”
In a world where consumers have more access to information than ever, they like to know where their food is coming from and how it’s grown, he said — and they like the idea of buying locally.
“To show it’s sustainable, it’s about your livelihood,” Vilsack said. “It’s in everyone’s financial interest, and in addition, it’s great for the environment.”
Iowa is on the cusp of innovation, he said, and once the state can tout itself as the most committed to a zero-emission future, it will attract other businesses, which attract more workers who send their children to schools and rural communities will thrive.
“People will say Iowa is at the cutting edge. The rest of the world comes to us,” he said.
During a question-and-answer session, Vilsack also spoke about the U.S.-China trade war.
He said he the Trump administration was “correct” in calling out China, but “went to war without an ally.”
Vilsack said the administration should have approached other countries first and then confronted China jointly, saying, “You’ve got to change your way of doing business.”
Vilsack said the trade war isn’t about a trade imbalance, it’s that China had requirements the United States didn’t.
“They had a competitive advantage,” he said.
RUN FOR OFFICE?
When asked if he would run for political office in the future, the former Iowa governor — now president and chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council — said he thinks he still has a role to play in politics, but not on the ballot.
Vilsack said Christie Vilsack, his wife, describes them as “the Walmart greeters of presidential candidates.”
“We have been, and we’ll continue to be for a while,” Vilsack said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to decide who to support at the caucus.”
Vilsack said the Democratic Party has paid a “serious price” for not paying enough attention to rural Americans, which make up 15 percent of the nation’s population, in past elections.
“In the meantime, our focus is on making sure that my party doesn’t make the mistakes it’s made in the past, which was to ignore, not speak to, not speak about and not understand folks in rural spaces,” he said.
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