The calendar is winding down on the current head of USDA and Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer used a weekly conference call with reporters as a time to discuss accomplishments of the Bush Administration. Schafer, who only took the position about a year ago, notes that these last 12 months have "passed amazingly fast."
He notes that the Bush Administration was able to bring in a time of strong growth for U.S. agriculture with solid commodity prices, rapid export growth and the move to renewable fuels. Looking at exports, he notes that for 2008, ag exports would top $150 billion and account for about 1/3 of all cash receipts for U.S. producers.
Schafer explains that the President Bush was focused on gaining fair access to foreign markets and that's why the administration "made expanding free trade one if its highest priorities," Schafer says. He notes there were 17 free trade agreements made and that three - with Colombia, South Korea and Panama - are still awaiting action by Congress.
A highlight of those trade efforts, according to Schafer, was passage of the Central America Free Trade Agreement including the Dominican Republic. "For the five nations that have ratified the agreement trade has jumped to $2.3 billion - which was 67% higher than pre-agreement levels. And trade to those countries is up 45% this year."
He notes that U.S. beef trade continues to recover from the bovine spongiform encephalopathy discovery in 2003 but science-based efforts are reopening trade. Beef and beef product exports would top $2.6 billion and are back to about two-thirds of their "pre-BSE" levels.
It was evident during the call that Schafer was frustrated by Congress and moves it makes - or doesn't make - that can stifle USDA and trade activities. When discussing recent talk by Rep. Colin Peterson, D-Minn., concerning a potential reorganization of the agency, Schafer agreed. "Everyone who works here would love to reorganize USDA and clearly recognize that there are ways to be more efficient, do programs better and allow us a better delivery and control of our payments and safety net programs," he says. "It's important to remember that we get handcuffed in those reorganization efforts by Congress."
He cites an example of a move to try to close on Farm Service Agency office in a Midwest state when another was just 17 miles away. But as soon as the effort is announced, Congress would "write legislation that would keep us from closing offices unless there were no people there...Congress is the obstruction here." Conservation and rural development
USDA, under the Bush Administration, has been a strong advocate for conservation and rural development, Schafer says. "Federal support for conservation is up $21 billion and as a result we've been able to protect millions of acres of wetlands and help thousands of producers improve the air and water quality," he says. Those efforts include work to use private markets where conservation values can be traded. Creation of the environmental services board and the ecosystems services in late 2008 would work to set uniform, science-based standards for the environmental benefits of conservation practices.
As for rural development, Schafer notes that $14 billion was spent on the issue, which was a 36% increase over previous spending levels. "That created 2 million jobs, fostered the investment in broadband, rural health facilities and renewable energy development," Schafer says.
Schafer looks to the new administration and its chosen candidate for Secretary of Agriculture - Tom Vilsack - to build on what's been started. "There's the potential for further development of renewable fuels, including the development of new biomass feedstocks and continued public support will be needed," he notes. Packing up for the transition
The Bush team is packing boxes and working smoothly through the transition, Schafer says. But he leaves office with at least one hope: "We're going to face a world population that will grow by 70 million people next year and we're going to have to feel all these new mouths without using new land, that's the challenge of the 21st Century. I hope the next president and secretary of agriculture can find partisan ways to build on the successes of the Bush Administration."