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Welcome home, and a look ahead

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was recently in Des Moines, and I got to hear him speak. He talked about prospects for the new federal farm bill, which Congress will consider and, hopefully, reach agreement on and pass it before the old one expires in September. However, the first thing the secretary talked about was to offer a “welcome home” greeting to Iowans serving in the U.S. military as they returned home from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When he was governor of Iowa, Vilsack attended homecomings for Iowa troops who served our country and send-offs for Iowa National Guard troops as they left to go overseas. As 2011 drew to a close, Iowans celebrated as the war in Iraq came to an end and our soldiers came home.

“When I was mayor of Mount Pleasant, in the first Iraq War, I remember sending our soldiers off from the Iowa National Guard unit in Mount Pleasant,” Vilsack recalled. “It was a terrible feeling, putting those guys on the bus, hoping they would return safely once their tour of duty was over. What a wonderful occasion it is when these men and women get reunited with their families.”

Over the last decade, Iowa soldiers, many from farms and rural communities, have served their country well. We’ve had agricultural involvement in the war zones overseas. In Afghanistan a group of Iowans is teaching farming practices to Afghan farmers.

That effort is continuing, with Iowans as part of an advisory team helping with a USDA project to encourage Afghan farmers to move away from opium production and raise higher-value fruits, vegetables and other crops. “It takes a long time for that transition,” notes Vilsack, “but fortunately for the folks from Iowa and USDA serving as advisers over there, we have brave men and women in our National Guard and U.S. military services helping assist and protect them.”

Budget battles are looming

Looking back on 2011, it was quite a year for agriculture in Iowa and the United States. Looking ahead in 2012, the secretary said, “I think we’ll see strong prices. There will be ups and downs, but overall demand for American ag products around the world isn’t going to abate. We have a great brand; American commodities and ag products stand for quality. There’s renewed interest in pork and beef, for example. The free trade agreements we signed in 2011 will also help expand our U.S. ag exports. We had a record export year in 2011 and a record year in farm income; hopefully, that will continue.”

He added, “We are very blessed in this country with hardworking farmers who provide an extraordinary diversity of food. We are food secure, and it’s available at an affordable price. The rest of the world knows it; that’s one of the reasons we’re able to sell as much overseas as we do.”

In Washington, the buzz is to cut the federal budget as much as possible versus raising taxes. Looking toward the formation of the new farm program in Congress, Vilsack said, “there are two things to consider about the federal budget and agriculture. There is the USDA operating budget, which has already been reduced. When you take into account all the reductions and inflation, etc., it’s around 15% that our budget has been cut, and we anticipate there will be additional cuts. At USDA we’re trying to manage that change rather than have change manage us.”

New farm bill won’t come easy

Congress will work on the new farm bill. “I hope we get a farm bill in 2012. It’s important to have it,” said Vilsack. “My concern is with reduced federal spending in an election year with a Congress that has a hard time agreeing on where to make cuts, you wonder whether getting 60 votes in the Senate for a farm bill is something that’s doable. It hasn’t been easy in the past and it’s likely to be just as difficult in the future.”

Vilsack said, “We at USDA will continue to push, focusing on a strong financial safety net for farmers in the new farm bill, and making sure we continue to invest in soil and water conservation and ag research, and promote trade. If we do those things and focus on rural development, we’ll have a good farm bill, whether it’s 2012 or 2013 when it finally gets passed and signed into law.”

Free trade agreements have helped re-establish American ag products in certain countries. Vilsack journeyed to China and Vietnam in November. “China is a huge potential buyer, and there are real opportunities in Vietnam,” he said. “We’ve gone from doing very little business with the Vietnamese to where we are doing quite a bit now. They’re very interested in working with us, as is Japan and other countries in Southeast Asia, on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade agreement we think would have significant benefits for American agriculture.”

The U.S. must continue trying to strike down barriers some countries put into place to prevent us from being as competitive as we are, he said. “We recently talked with the Mexican ag minister about beef and potatoes; we continue to talk to the Chinese about reopening their country to U.S. beef. They’ve given us a slight concession that they would be willing to talk about more than just a limited amount of beef imported into China. We’re also hopeful as Japan looks at importing U.S. beef in light of the recent free trade agreement with South Korea. The free trade agreements create new opportunities for us in these parts of the world.”

This article published in the January, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.