This year, Common Ground’s programming will focus broadly on climate change and the variety of issues surrounding it. Aptly, Vilsack visited Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong’s Climate Change class in the afternoon.
Later, the whole Hamilton community was invited to join Vilsack and his fellow speaker Representative G.T. Thompson, the chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture from Pennsylvania’s 15th district, for an informal discussion at the first ever Coffee and Cookies event.
The evening’s discussion focused on agricultural issues such as the Farm Bill, as well as bipartisanship. The discussion was moderated by Edvige Jean-François ’90, an award-winning, multilingual global journalist. She is the inaugural executive director of the Center for Studies on Africa and Its Diaspora at Georgia State University.
“Agriculture is one of the last bastions of bipartisanship.”
Despite Vilsack being a Democrat and Thompson a Republican, they both agreed about the importance of bipartisanship in the world of agricultural politics.
“Agriculture is one of the last bastions of bipartisanship,” Vilsack said, a sentiment later echoed by Thompson.
This description proved true in the duo’s discussion about the Farm Bill, which is up for renewal soon.
“The Farm Bill impacts the lives of everyday Americans and people around the world in immeasurable ways,” Thompson explained. “It’s about keeping American farm families from failing, because if they fail, every American suffers. It’s providing them tools so they can provide us with food, firewood, building materials, and energy resources. It’s about economic impact. It’s about jobs. It’s about taxes. It’s about trade. It’s about food security. It’s about rural development.”
Vilsack pointed out a few issues slowing the progression of a new Farm Bill, namely debates over eligibility requirements for the SNAP program and adjustments to reference prices for crops.
While Vilsack promoted the SNAP program as a social safety net fundamental for our democracy, Thompson argued that reasonable eligibility requirements are already in place for the program. Both ultimately disagreed with demands for stricter work requirements for the SNAP program, but from different perspectives.
Climate change entered the discussion regarding meat production’s emission of the greenhouse gas methane. Once more, Vilsack and Thompson came to the same end point supporting meat production through vastly different rationale.
“I think the livestock industry is sensitive to the methane issue, as the Climate Smart Commodities Partnership we’ve set up has established many new programs to reduce methane either by reducing it to begin with or capturing it and turning it into a multitude of new products, including energy,” Vilsack said.
Conversely, Thompson defended the livestock industry, saying “we need to stop putting bullseyes on the backs of the American farmer, rancher, and foresters” and appreciate the amount of carbon that they sequester.
The program ended with an audience question-and-answer session in which students prompted the speakers on economic efficiency theories’ impact on rural America, the Chinese economic downturn’s effect on American agriculture, and the possibilities for bipartisan climate change initiatives in legislature. A local dairy farmer also posed a question about whole milk in schools and governmental support of dairy farmers.
This year’s Common Ground events, ushered in by Vilsack and Thompson’s discussion, is more relevant now than ever as climate change is at the forefront of the cultural zeitgeist. The series is addressing issues that resonate with both students and the wider Hamilton community.