CEDAR RAPIDS — What Iowa needs, Tom Vilsack says, is a little genius.
Vilsack, who will deliver the Oct. 3 keynote address at the third annual Iowa Ideas conference — The Gazette’s two-day nonpartisan, statewide learning and networking experience in Cedar Rapids — draws inspiration from German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who said, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see.”
“So I think we need to think about targets, we need to think about ways to develop the state ... in ways that we haven’t been thinking about,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack, 68, has been thinking about those targets for some time as a mayor of an Iowa county-seat community in the 1980s, as a state senator in the 1990s, as a Democratic governor for eight years spanning the turn of the century and as President Barack Obama’s U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary for eight years. Now, as president and chief executive of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, Vilsack continues to look for targets — for opportunities to solve old problems and meet new challenges.
And despite seemingly endless chaos, intense global competition and government systems that are at times slow to react to change, Vilsack remains optimistic about Iowa in the 21st century.
“There’s just unlimited opportunity,” he said, mentioning the rise of the bio-based economy and the renewable fuels industry as examples. “I think there’s beginning to be a recognition that we’re just really at the tip of the iceberg on all of this.”
Iowans need to take risks, ‘embrace diversity’
Seeing the opportunities in the challenges facing Iowa will require a willingness to be open to doing things differently, “to embracing some of the new ideas, to taking a leap, and taking a risk that we might be uncomfortable doing,” he said.
Iowans will need to “embrace diversity — diversity of crops, diversity of methods of production, diversity of people.” It won’t be risk-free, but the risk of inaction is greater, according to Vilsack.
“It’s going to require the risk of investment for infrastructure, it’s going to require the risk of changing the way government does business so that decisions are made more quickly, embracing risk on being more open to people that don’t look or talk or think the way we have,” he said. “That’s going to be hard, no question about it.
“But if we don’t do that, I can tell you other states are doing it,” he said. “And as they do, they continue to grow, they continue to expand and they continue to attract our young people. So we need to get in the game.”
Where to start? Climate change
A logical place for Iowa to start is addressing climate change. Ignored, it could devastate the ag-based economy, Vilsack said. But the Iowa economy, including agriculture, could be climate change winners.
“I think American agriculture has a tremendous opportunity to make a significant and incredible contribution to our efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate,” he said.
“I see a day when (farmers) can be compensated for carbon sequestration, can be compensated for water quality,” Vilsack said. Livestock manure “that causes a lot of problems with your neighbors” will be processed to separate solids from liquids. The solids will be injected into the ground “so it doesn’t create the smell ... and the liquids are basically reclaimed.”
“You create new chemicals, you clean up the water, you reuse it,” Vilsack said. “All of a sudden you have these enormous opportunities for multiple revenue streams, in addition to selling corn and beans, in addition to selling hogs, in addition to milking cows. So, to me, that’s what that’s the kind of thinking that I think we need in the state.”
Initially it may require government assistance to show what’s possible and to lead to the policy changes to make sure each new practice “gets multiplied, magnified beyond a few showcase farms,” Vilsack said.
Benefits beyond the farm help all Iowans
But the benefits won’t be limited to the farm. It would lead to the creation of new business and job opportunities in the manufacturing and service industries. New farm machinery and implements would be needed “and maybe they’re going to be made at the John Deere in Ankeny. Maybe they’re going to be made in Waterloo. Maybe they’re going to be made here in Cedar Rapids.”
Changes in food processing will create new opportunities for Cedar Rapids, which he called a “mega-center for food processing.”
“So yeah, I think there’s opportunity to sell this to bridge the rural-urban divide and have everybody sort of rowing in the same direction,” Vilsack said.
Those changes can lead to growth in communities of all sizes and improve the quality of life for Iowans. Growth and stability in schools, hospitals and other community institutions means “people can stay or come back to a rural community,” he said.
Again, Vilsack said that may require a different way of thinking about attracting and retaining people, especially to rural communities. Offering teachers, nurses and other professionals help in buying their first homes “creates roots that create a connection to the community that oftentimes results in people staying a lot longer than they anticipated,” Vilsack said.
There’s always risk in trying something new, but the alternative is likely fatal.
“Trying to hang on, you know, that’s a prescription for a slow decline,” Vilsack said.
Making change will require leadership and political courage “and I think there is a hankering for that,” he said.
“It’s an incredible new future that Iowans have to take full advantage of.”
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