President Obama raised the issue of the Mississippi River flows with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at a cabinet meeting Wednesday and also asked Vilsack about the drought situation overall.
Vilsack told reporters Thursday the president instructed the administration to put together a way in which rock removal could be fast-tracked by the Army Corps of Engineers. Vilsack told reporters Thursday that is the process of happening. He also has communicated with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and leaders at the Army Corps of Engineers about the ability to continue navigation.
"Those conversations are ongoing. I think everyone is aware and sensitive to the importance of that river and getting product to market," Vilsack said.
According to other published reports, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney also said Thursday that the president directing the administration to take “every step to mitigate” the situation. Yet, Carney added that there are “complex” legal and technical steps which can be pursued, saying the Army Corps of Engineers has taken “proactive” measures.
In his own Q&A Thursday with reporters, Vilsack also was asked, what was the biggest thing we learned this year about agriculture and the drought? And what's the biggest challenge agriculture faces given we are still in a drought?
"An important lesson is the technology has allowed us to survive an extraordinary weather experience in better shape than I think anybody thought we would be in when the drought began," Vilsack said. "I think the yields were a little higher than people anticipated and I think it's in large part because of technology and the techniques farmers use. It’s a reinforcement for the need for us to continue to invest in science and to trust science.
Vilsack continued, "The biggest challenge is the long-term impacts of no water and the fact that these hearings or these meetings have allowed us to understand we need to be focused on the infrastructure of storage and the regulation of the flow of water. We need to think about that. We need to be concerned about the ability to use our rivers and our ports to get product to and from market efficiently and effectively. If the Mississippi shuts down for an extended period of time, we're actually talking about millions of dollars of lost opportunity or additional expenses to be able to ship stuff by rail or to a different port. We'll get it to market but it will be more expensive and therefore less competitive."
Earlier, speaking at the Farm Journal Forum, Vilsack tackled the question of climate change, citing the intense weather conditions and storms hitting the coasts, sustained drought in the Great Plains and extraordinary wildfires in the West.
"There is no question while there may be a debate in some folks minds about the cause, there is no question the climate is indeed changing," Vilsack said, "which necessitates USDA and all of agriculture and those concerned about rural America to focus on additional research and ways we can indeed adapt and mitigate and develop strategies that in the long-term will allow us to continue to have the greatest agriculture in the world, the most efficient and most productive agriculture in the world, to be able to fulfill our own needs in the United States and continue this robust commitment to exports."
It will take a concerted effort to respond and understand climate change, he said.
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