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Vilsack: Future of agriculture requires big-picture perception

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From TPP to Trump, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shared his insights on key agricultural issues during the National Association of Farm Broadcasting’s 73rd annual convention in Kansas City. Here’s a brief look at Vilsack’s viewpoints:

TPP

Vilsack said he thinks the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement is a high-standards agreement, would reduce barriers/tariffs to U.S. products and has significant support from a majority in agriculture, but other American businesses and industries have not been so aggressive in getting it passed. He said many confuse the significant opportunity for trade (conservatively the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates the agreement would create $4 billion to $5 billion in additional trade and farm income on a yearly basis) with globalization.

“It is easy to basically lump them together and to create a sense of anxiety and concern among people because they feel it might cost them an opportunity or a job,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said the decision now weighs solely on Congress — they can either do nothing or proceed forward and put the issue up to vote. Vilsack said Japan is proceeding this week to vote on it, which would suggest that many other countries may also move forward to approve it. There is nothing to prevent the other countries to move forward without the U.S.

“We have to recognize we risk seeding important decision making in this Asian market if we are not fully participating,” Vilsack said.

Benefits of agriculture

According to Vilsack, we have over 300,000 products sold in grocery stores and most of them are produced through agriculture. Because of this incredible diversity, our country has competition for our food dollar, and this creates a relatively inexpensive food supply in this country. The average U.S. consumer spends only 10 percent of overall income on food, and that gives each individual flexibility to buy other things.

“It creates a layered, more complex, more sophisticated, mores job-creating economy which is why we have the strongest economy in the world, and it starts with agriculture,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said another benefit for U.S. agriculture is that the country produces more food than it needs, but all it needs for the U.S. He said this fact alone gives the country incredible security and differentiates the U.S. from others such as China or Russia.

He also mentioned that today’s farmers are such great producers, it allows the rest of the U.S. citizens the opportunity to pursue other occupations and jobs, rather than trying to grow their own food. Rural families also supply a great deal to the military.

While these are positive statements to make about U.S. agriculture, Vilsack said there is an inaccurate portrayal and stereotype today of a farmer in this country.

“This is a sophisticated business, and I could make the argument, I think, pretty forcibly that it is one of the most, if not the most, difficult business to be in because you not only have to be good at it, but you also have to understand how to market, how to read weather patterns, and make 1,000 small decisions that could end up not costing you around the edges or the margins, but that could potentially wipe you out. …  So, it is incredibly risky,” Vilsack said.

He said there is still a lot more work to be done in getting consumers to appreciate that and to breaking down the stereotype of farmers. He hopes the next Secretary of Agriculture will continue his “drumbeat” in sharing the impact agriculture has on the rest of the nation to get the support politically for all the programs in the “Farm Bill.” (Vilsack said the bill should be renamed to pull in more allies rather than feed into the stereotype.)

Consumer demands

Vilsack said the agriculture and food industries need to do a much more comprehensive job in educating consumers on what farmers do and why they do it.  He thinks the shrinkage in agriculture education classes around the nation is a missed opportunity to communicate.

Consumers can ask for a different way of animal welfare or production, but there needs to be a better understanding of the whole picture. Vilsack said there needs to be a more sophisticated approach to referendums and votes and the ag community needs to be less defensive on these issues, but instead more active, positive, and informative.

He also said it’s important to convene these groups to discuss the issues. He gave an example where the USDA recently brought in more than 100 companies/organizations that made the cage-free commitment but had never talked to each other or others along the supply chain about it. During the discussion, they raised the point that there is currently around 17 million layers in the country that are cage-free. To meet the demand for these 100 companies, they would need over 200 million layers. The infrastructure cost to set that up would be $8 billion.

“You are going to ask these producers to spend $8 billion to fix their places up to provide cage-free eggs, and there is no guarantee that when consumer X walks in the grocery store and they see that cage-free eggs are 50 cents a dozen more, then they say nope I will just keep the conventional,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said we shouldn’t be negative toward these issues, but to have the conversation.

Message to Trump administration

Vilsack believes producers are too fixated on regulations and taxes and needs to look at larger issues that impact the bottom line for producers such as infrastructure, immigration, and trade.

“Our number one customer today is China … so you want to get tough on China,” Vilsack said. “How are they going to react to that?”

Vilsack China may look at other options for corn, soybeans and pork as the U.S. isn’t the only supplier. The No. 3 customer is Mexico and No. 5 customer is the EU, with most through NATO.

“Have you all thought about that? Are you asking questions about that?” Vilsack said. “I think our conversation is too simplistic because it doesn’t mirror the sophistication and complexity of agriculture, and it doesn’t help the rest of the country understand how incredibly complex this industry is and how all of that is really important.”

SNAP Program

Vilsack said he wouldn’t change it, but we need to identify and remove the barriers to employment for SNAP participants. He said people do not stay on SNAP forever.

“A lot of these people have worked or want to work, but just need help,” Vilsack said.

He said it is also clear when people get SNAP benefits they use them … and those benefits trickle down to the producer.

Vilsack believes there are two major issues in the hotspots in the world today: They don’t have a functional agricultural economy (creating unemployment) and they have no nutritional assistance programs (hungry people).

“Part of the reason we have this incredible stability in our country that allows for a peaceful transition of power and so on is because we have fewer of those people because we have programs to help those people,” Vilsack said.

 

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