Good year ahead but big challenges
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack opened USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum with an upbeat view of what to expect in the farm economy this year, and a challenge to Congress to deal with pressing problems.
Recently approved free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea as well as new commitments from China to buy U.S. commodities will help the export market, Vilsack said. Agriculture will also benefit from an improving U.S. economy, the growth of local food systems across the nation and greater use of biobased products, he said.
“All of this bodes well for 2012, which we project to be the second highest on record,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack promised an effort to improve service to farmers and other constituents of one of the nation’s largest federal agencies, during a time of restraints on federal spending. Ten years ago, 18,000 people were working for farm service agencies, he said. Today that number is closer to 12,000.
“At USDA we understand the importance of a strong safety net,” he said.
One of the things the agency is doing is a review of crop insurance premiums by the Risk Management Agency. It has already changed premiums for corn and soybeans in much of the Midwest for 2012, which is the first step in a longer revision.
“We’ll continue to insure that the premiums farmers are paying are fair,” Vilsack said.
The USDA will continue to review premiums “and we’ll order premiums reduced where it’s appropriate,” he said.
Besides working to improve trade with important markets like Colombia and China, the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service worked last year on more than 1,400 challenges to trade barriers against U.S. products, especially beef and GMOs, he said.
Vilsack said he’d like to see Congress do more to promote a biobased economy when it writes the next farm bill.
“America needs the clean energy future the President called for in his state of the union address,” he said.
To increase opportunities for new and existing companies, the President has expanded use of biobased products by federal government. Vilsack said the government expects to double the number of products to 18,000 that will be available to federal agencies.
"This is a great opportunity for us to expand the biobased industry,” he said.
Vilsack criticized those who demonize immigrant labor for political gain.
“The sad reality of today…is that crops will be raised in this country this year that may not be harvested because there is not the workforce to get the job done.”
Later, in a press conference, Vilsack said that states like Georgia and California have had trouble finding laborers to pick crops. Congress needs to tackle immigration reform, he said.
“The country needs its elected political leaders to have the courage to do what is right…” he said.
As congress considers next farm bill it will consider how deal with direct payments, crop insurance, and other commodity programs he said. And it will have less money to do so.