Interview with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

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Evan Kleiman talked with US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier today.  He’s in town (Long Beach, to be precise), to promote agricultural exports as a way to boost the US economy, and to push a free trade agreement with South Korea.  The Port of Long Beach is one of the country’s busiest and it critical for Southland jobs.  He and Evan covered everything from urban agriculture to the lack of slaughterhouses in Central California.  The full interview is here and a transcript is below… You can also hear the interview this Saturday on Good Food.
Tom Vilsack Interview with KCRW’s Evan Kleiman by KCRW

keep reading for the full transcript


Evan Kleiman: In 2010, California ports handled more than 35 billion dollars in agricultural exports. Products include meat, almonds, wine, cotton and pistachios among others. So great to have you here with us, Secretary. I guess my first question, big picture, would be how does California rank among US states in agricultural production and trade?

Tom Vilsack: You know, obviously California is the number one state, in terms of production and, uh, more agricultural products come through California and through the ports in California than any other state, so it’s obviously a very, very important state for American agriculture and for the American economy. The more trade we do, the more income for farmers and ranchers and growers and the more jobs are created as a result of it.

EK: How much trade does move through the Long Beach Port?

TV: Well, you mentioned the 35 billion dollar number and I think roughly half of that goes through Long Beach. You have the ports in San Francisco and Los Angeles that also contribute. A very significant opportunity for us and I think we’re looking at actually expanding that opportunity with the Korean Free Trade Agreement that’s going to be presented to Congress.

EK: Let’s talk for a minute about that Korean Free Trade Agreement. What does it mean, exactly, in terms of the exchange? What will be sending to them? How much, hopefully, and what do we get in return?

TV: Well we’ll be increasing, we expect an increase in trade would create a roughly 10 billion dollars, and of that number 1.9 billion is expected to be agricultural trade. For California that involves dairy, it involves nuts; it involves beef produced here in this state. Basically what happens is this agreement will reduce tariffs that Korea currently assesses on our goods anywhere from a couple percentage points to as high as 53% tariffs, and that makes our products less competitive in the global market. By the execution of this agreement, those tariffs will be removed, many of them immediately, and some over a period of time. As they are remove, our products become more competitive on the market and we expect and anticipate more American agricultural products to be purchased. And so we’re looking forward to this because it obviously increases market opportunities for farmers, ranchers and growers but it also, we believe, will generate thousands of new jobs in the economy as well.

EK: When we’re talking about those farmers, ranchers and growers, is it mostly very, very large farmers like big Ag, or will more medium sized producers also benefit?

TV: It’s a combination. Certainly in the dairy operations you have very, very large operations in California but you also have very small operations. And when you’re basically reducing the quotas and the tariffs on cheese and skim and whole milk powder, you’re basically helping dairy producers of all sizes. Obviously there are large beef operations, cow operations but there are also very small niche operations, there are chances there for increased trade. And obviously farmers and growers are basically of all sizes as well and there’s a tremendous opportunity in terms of almonds, pistachios, and shelled walnuts to do far more trade with Korea that we’ve done in the past. And whenever we increase trade opportunities we obviously stabilize the price, which impacts producers of all sizes.

EK: What would we get in turn from them in terms of food products?

TV: You know I don’t think that we necessarily import a great deal from Korea in terms of food. I think we’re more likely to be dealing with issues involving technologies, automobiles, things of that nature.

EK: And that’s interesting because I know particularly in terms of our trade exchange with food with China, people are concerned about the same level of standards of imports.

TV: Well, they could be reassured that anything that comes into this country in terms of food has to come from a place that we have determined in advance to be equivalent or better than anything that’s done in the United States in terms of food safety process and production. That is an equivalency requirement, which is why in many, many cases we don’t allow the food to come into the United States from other countries because they don’t have processing and production facilities that are in fact equivalent when it comes to food safety.

EK: When food does come in from abroad, is there always the necessity of labeling for the consumer?

TV: Labeling in terms of the country?

EK: Yeah, country of origin in labeling.

TV: Well we have some of that. Right now we’re actually experiencing an interesting disagreement with Canada and Mexico. We’ve attempted to basically a country of origin labeling for our meat products, and Canada and Mexico have raised concerns about that in the WTO so there is a process that you have to be careful that you comply with the international rules and regulations on this.

EK: You know California is in so much financial trouble. Is agriculture one of the bright spots?

TV: Well it’s certainly a bright spot, not only in California but across the country. We saw farmer income generally raise somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-35% last year and we anticipate another strong income year this year, perhaps a record amount of income for farmers in terms of cash received. As you increase trade and we anticipate a record trade year, increasing trade by over 20 billion dollars to 135.5 billion, as you do that you obviously are increasing the bottom line. Commodity prices are very, very good and very strong right now so producers are dong well. That in turn allows them to feel a little bit freer about purchasing equipment. And especially with the new tax bill that basically provides folks the opportunity write off their entire cost of new equipment this year as oppose to over a period of years so they can save on federal taxes. There should be great impetus to buy those new pieces of equipment that in turn should put people to work building those new pieces of equipment. So, our hope is that as we’ve begun to see an improving economy generally in this country, it’s because agriculture in part has helped lead the way.

EK: Do you have any idea how much of the agricultural exports that we can expect to be increased will be organic?

TV: We have a relatively small organic part of our agriculture it’s roughly 4% of agriculture today in the United States. We are in the process of negotiating with the EU on an equivalency arrangement where essentially everyone’s standards would be essentially the same that would free up opportunities; most of our organic trade is with Canada and with the EU. We just recently completed an equivalency agreement with Canada, and we’re continuing to work on the EU.

EK: Let’s talk about the Farm Bill for a minute if we can. Looking to the 2012 farm bill, given the fact that we’re seeing this increase in total food prices, will the new Farm Bill subsidies you think have any effect on crops meant for human consumption?

TV: Well, the Farm Bill discussion is going to be a difficult one this year and next year. In part because there are so many in need, and in part because obviously their resources are going to be limited. We will probably not have as much money to deal with as we have in the past and so we’re going to have to make some tough and difficult choices. We haven’t begun that process and we haven’t begun to have discussions and conversations with members of Congress so it would be premature to judge precisely what’s going to happen, but I think it’s fair to say that we have to be very clear about the principles that are important. I think because there is a need, because agriculture can change rather dramatically, we saw two days ago a substantial drop in commodity prices because of the situation in Japan, the next day we saw an increase in those commodity prices and so it’s a very volatile circumstance and situation so you need a safety net. And you want to make sure that safety net is directed to the people who are most in need of it, and we use it appropriately, and there are many ways to do a safety net. We have looked at a crop insurance program, for example, and we have looked for ways to expand that risk management tool to a wide variety of crops including organic crops. And we’re going to continue to look for ways in which we can use thoughtful processes like that to provide a safety net that’s important. At the end of the day the best safety net obviously is domestic and foreign markets continue to expand and we’re going to continue to work on that as well.

EK: Because you know there are a lot of people out there who don’t understand that mostly what’s’ grown in California are mostly specialty crops, and often specialty crops are not the most highly subsidized crops.

TV: That’s true, but you know there are multitudes of ways in which we provide assistance and help, for example, in the area of fruits and vegetables, we purchase nearly a half a billion dollars worth of fruits and vegetables for our school lunch and school breakfast programs. We are working on a point of sale pilot project in Massachusetts to determine whether or not we can encourage more fruit and vegetable purchases by the 44 million people who are currently receiving the supplemental nutrition assistance program effort that benefits SNAP, used to be called food stamps. There’s 115 million dollars that’s utilized through the farm bill to provide fresh fruit and vegetable snacks for youngsters in all 50 states in school districts that are struggling economically. So there are a variety of ways that crop insurance includes some of the specialty crops: the purchases, the farmers market expansions that we are helping provide financial assistance. The research that we’re doing on organic and specialty crops, the invasive species and tests and disease issues that we put literally hundreds of millions of dollars into. So there are a wide variety of ways in which all aspects of agriculture are helped. There’s often a focus on more of the commodity crops and more of the direct payment programs to farmers but everyone needs to understand that there are other aspects of support for agriculture that create a safety net for many, many producers.

EK: The USDA’s mission is primarily rural, but so many city-based people now care about healthy food and agriculture and are seeking to become partners with rural producers. You’re in Long Beach right now, which is a major urban area with not a lot of healthy food options. Do you think urban agriculture is worth the investment and time of the USDA?

TV: Not only is it worth it, but we’re actually involved and engaged in that, and we’re also involved and engaged in what we’re referring to as the healthy financing initiative trying to make sure that we have full scale grocery stores in areas that do not have them today and make it very difficult for people to access a wide variety of nutritious options. Part of that is working with the treasury department and the new market credit program, HHS has a series of programs, we have a series of programs, and some of our resources are in fact being used to create the networks that encourage urban gardens, community supported agricultural activities, which link local producers with consumers, we’ll work in the school districts, to try to make sure they understand what’s being grown and raised in their local area, and encouraging them to try and do a better job of contracting with those local producers. So there’s a wide variety of things under the rubric of know your farmer, know your food, which is a program that we have at the USDA, that sort of takes advantage of all the programs we have at USDA and tries to direct them so that people have a better connection so there’s a lot going on at USDA.

EK: One of the big issues for people here in Southern California who want to eat a little more locally is sourcing local meat, and the central coast of California is so underutilized right now as pastoral land. I know there’s a lot of ranchers out there who would love to put more animals on their pasture but they’re stymied by the lack of local slaughterhouses. Is that something that the USDA is starting to take a look at?

TV: Well part of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food includes taking a look at mobile slaughter units that can provide assistance and help to very small operations, and we have one of them that we just recently funded in upstate New York, so I would expect the producers and ranchers in this state should maybe reach out to rural development folks at the USDA here in California and ask and inquire about programs that might be able to be used to assist in funding the development of a mobile or permanent slaughter facility.

EK: Now I want to talk about Japan for a minute –

TV: Hate to say this but I’ve only got about one minute…

EK: Ok that’s ok. We’ve been watching these images of Japan’s agricultural land being inundated with seawater. Is the USDA moderating not just how we can give food assistance but agricultural assistance to Japan?

TV: Yeah I’m actually sending a letter today to my counterpart in Japan, asking him to feel free to contact us for any kind of assistance they may need as they begin the process, after they sort of get over the shock and the enormity of this challenge for them, as they start to figure out how they’re going to rebuild places that have been devastated including agricultural and we stand ready and prepared to help them in any way we can. We have a good relationship with Japan; they are one of our strongest allies and friends. We want to maintain that strength and that relationship and presence it’s very clear that we’re going to do everything we can to help these folk get through what is, just an enormously difficult circumstance for them.

EK: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your schedule to be with us, we really appreciate it.

TV: You bet, thank you.