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A Chat With Tom Vilsack

December 8, 2010
By: Roger Bernard, Farm Journal Policy and Washington Editor

Hot topics including ethanol, trade and livestock marketing have kept Tom Vilsack in the spotlight as USDA Secretary. In October, we sat down with Vilsack in Washington, D.C., to talk about what’s ahead for U.S. agriculture.


With President Barack Obama setting a goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years, agriculture has the potential to benefit. Current U.S. ag exports were valued at more than $108 billion in fiscal year 2010.

“What the President’s comment had to do with was the economy as a whole and our entire trade picture,” Vilsack explained. “And there are obviously opportunities in manufacturing for significant growth since we’re operating at a deficit.”

As for agriculture, Vilsack predicted there will be more export opportunities ahead, even if they don’t double.

“We’ve become more strategic in our approach to trade,” he explained. “We’ve analyzed individual countries as to where they are on the market continuum: Some are fragile markets, some are emerging markets, some are closed markets we want to open and some are mature markets. We have devised a strategy for each type of market instead of treating this as sort of a one-size-fits-all approach.”

That approach of “personalizing and customizing” the ag trade effort will pay dividends, he added.

In addition, the U.S. is “looking for countries where there are emerging middle classes—some of the Asian countries such as China, India and Indonesia. As they [grow], they are going to be looking for higher-value products and that plays into the strength of America,” he noted.

Besides the shift in strategy, Vilsack also noted that the administration has been focusing on markets that “have been closed for too long,” referring primarily to the beef market.


When it comes to biotechnology, Vilsack said it plays into the trade strategy as well. “We’re doing a more informed and better job of touting the benefits of biotechnology, trying to get the rest of the world to understand what we know—that is, we’re not going to be able to meet the needs of a growing world population, the food that will be required, unless we embrace science and use science to our benefit,” Vilsack stressed. “We’re going to have to produce more without overtaxing our natural resources, water in particular.”

Beef Trade

When it comes to beef trade, Vilsack said getting full access for U.S. beef is key. He stressed the importance of presenting a consistent message to Japan, China and other countries. “It’s

important for us to be very sensitive to the need for a proper balance because we have the capacity to reopen not just a single market but multiple markets, and that’s going to be very good news for beef producers,” he said.


When we talked in October, Vilsack was waiting on word from the Environmental Protection Agency on whether E15 will be allowed for 2001 to 2006 model year cars and light trucks. “The more models that are covered under the E15 rule, the greater the opportunity for us to expand

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - December 2010

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