USDA's Vilsack Pledges to Push On Trade

February 24, 2011 07:27 AM

Legislation to implement the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) will be sent to Congress "very quickly," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters today at USDA's Outlook Forum. However, Vilsack did not provide any specific timeline for that to take place.

But trade will be a key for the future of agriculture, and Vilsack said during this remarks to the Forum's plenary session that the U.S. is "not going to take our foot off the gas on trade and exports."

Vilsack also called for other countries not to put export restrictions in place in the current climate of rising prices for commodities. But Vilsack also those higher prices underscore the need for "game-changing research and innovation. Higher prices are also a catalyst for the private sector to increase production."

In remarks before the Forum, Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she would pursue simplifying U.S. farm programs to better serve farmers.

Vilsack was asked by reporters about what Stabenow likely meant and said he wasn't quite sure as of yet. But he said USDA was continuing to pursue using technology so that farmers don't have to make as many trips to their local USDA service center to enroll in government programs. For example, Vilsack said that signup for some conservation efforts is now down to one trip. He also expressed a hope that there could be a time when producers can conduct all of their farm program business from their homes.

One area that Stabenow also referenced in her remarks was regulation. She informed that she was setting up a working group, working in cooperation with Senate Ag Committee Ranking Member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to address regulations in government agencies that affect agriculture such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Vilsack noted they have worked with EPA in some areas to shift regulations and said this effort by Stabenow should also be beneficial. But Vilsack stressed that EPA doesn't often pursue certain regulations or decisions because "they want to" or they "think it's a good idea." Instead, Vilsack said, often times it's because they are ordered by courts or by law to implement regulations.

Some familiar themes were also expressed by Vilsack, including his push for more localized agriculture production. While saying production agriculture is "extraordinarily important," Vilsack stressed there is a place for small farms and there should be efforts to build the supply chain to make that happen. "That's a difficult conversation to have," he admitted.

With the current climate in Washington having a backdrop of spending reductions, Vilsack was asked by reporters what kind of contingency plans his agency has in the event of a government shutdown. But he quickly discounted the possibility of a shutdown, saying that he fully expected an agreement would be "worked out" to avert a shutdown.

While USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber indicated that food prices were now forecast to rise 3% to 4% in 2011, Vilsack said that U.S. consumers still are able to keep more of their pay without having to spend it on food. He said a key question for consumers is "what are you doing with that extra money?"

Further, Vilsack said that those consumers need to thank farmers and said that farmers are "under appreciated."

Regarding international development efforts and helping farmers in poorer countries improve their output, Vilsack said U.S. commodity groups shouldn't fear those efforts as building more competition for them. "Commodity groups have to understand how far folks in other countries have to go," he said. "The reality is they have a long way to go in terms of conventional or traditional agriculture."

On biofuels, Vilsack said it was important to keep that industry going as that has been a catalyst for jobs and economic activity in rural areas.

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