At times Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack can cure insomnia with his wonkish nature, but other times he can inspire and exhibit deep sincerity and passion when talking about his life and career in rural America.
At times he can cause even the most jaded and sarcastic of observers to get a lump in the throat.
The secretary brought out some of his best speaking traits in Friday morning's speech to the Commodity Classic crowd. His talk left myself and others wondering if there still may be an opportunity for Vilsack on the national political stage after the Obama administration wraps up next January.
I asked him in a press conference Friday what he plans to be doing a year or two from now. Vilsack said he doesn't really know his plans, but "my grandkids are a draw. I want to see them grow up." He talked about one Saturday when his six-year-old grandson came to the door early just to ask his grandpa to come out and play. Vilsack also indicated he may go back to Iowa because he feels he owes the people of the state.
In his speech to the Classic audience, the secretary expressed continued hopefulness about the future of American farmers and agriculture. He also noted this would be his last speech before the Classic crowd in his current job and he wanted to finish with a personal note.
"This is a great country. As I began the process of looking back over the last seven years, I've also had a chance to look back on the course of my lifetime. I realized that I started out life in an orphanage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My life could have gone a lot of different ways. I was adopted into a family and my mom struggled with alcohol and prescription-drug addiction for awhile. My life could have gone a lot of different ways through that experience. But through her faith, and her community of support and recovery, she turned her life around and her family was reunited. She taught me a very, very valuable lesson to never give up on anything that matters or anyone who matters.
"I went to school with no idea what I was going to do, met a young lady who lived in a small town in Iowa -- took me five years to convince her," he said, drawing some laughs. "That was the toughest job I ever had.
"After law school we decided to go back and live in her hometown and I practiced law with her dad. This was my first experience dealing with farmers."
Vilsack noted around January or February farmers would start to come into the law office to get their taxes done. "Most of them come in with grocery sack full of records, a calendar or two with numbers written on it, dump the papers on my desk, tell me to calculate their taxes, make sure they didn't have to pay any more than they absolutely owed then don't charge them any more than 25 bucks." That drew a loud round of laughter and applause.
"You see I'm looking for work after this.
"But it was there I learned my first valuable lesson about agriculture. It's a tough business, a risky business. It's a hard business. It's a business where you can be the best at what you do and do it perfectly and Mother Nature just doesn't cooperate or the markets don't cooperate."
"I learned to value those people. I learned to value their pride, the emotion that they brought into my office every year about what they had done, what they had grown and how their children were helping and how their children had taken over the operation."
The secretary said that small-town law practice gave him a chance to represent farmers during the farm crisis of the 1980s when debt-to-asset ratios were significantly higher than today. "These folks would come in wanting to save the farm, not because it was a paycheck, not because it was where their income was coming from, but because they were rooted to that land, to the generations that farmed that land. They cared deeply about that land. They farmed that land.
"From that experience on, I always thought if I ever got into public life, I would try to do everything I could to ensure those farmers had a chance and an opportunity to make a living, to be innovative, to expand their operation, to give their kids a chance."
He noted he was fortunate as a mayor, state senator, governor and agriculture secretary to do that. "I know as I leave this job that one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the strength and security of this country, is the job that farmers have done throughout the history of the country," the secretary said.
He added, "It was farmers, for the most part, who fought the revolution and led the revolution. It was farmers who began to build and agricultural economy strong enough to allow cities to form and the economy to expand. It was farmers who fed the folks who worked in the factories that built our manufacturing base. It was farmers who were there when the world needed help and assistance with food. It was farmers in America who provided that help. And it was farmers who basically created the opportunity for every single person in this country who is not a farmer to dream about being something -- a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, a teacher, a carpenter, whatever."
He added that farmers basically made this country so it was not dependent on anybody for food. It's farmers, because of their efficiency and innovation and productivity that allow us to walk out of the grocery stores with more of our paychecks in our pocket, which allows us to fuel this economy, he said.
"It's farmers who are at the heart and soul of the value system of this country. It is farmers who instill in their young people giving something back to this country through military service, back to the community through volunteering. It is farmers who are the lynchpin, the heart and soul of this great country.
"So folks may walk out and talk to the country about how difficult things are, about how challenging things are, how bad things are, they ought to be in my job. They ought to be in my job working with the people I work with at USDA and they ought to be in my job working with the people I work with in rural America. Because if they were, if they saw what I saw, every single day, they would never be pessimistic about the future of this country. They would always be optimistic. They would never, ever give up on the future of this country.
"We are strong, we are stable, we are secure. We are the greatest nation on Earth, for one simple reason in my view -- because we have got the greatest farmers."
I can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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