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Agriculture Sec. Vilsack: Farm Bill expiration affects exports

Ed Greiman, a cattle producer near Garner, Iowa, checks on his silage in this file photo. (Clay Masters for Harvest Public Media)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latestOutlook for U.S. Agricultural Trade,” which was published on Nov. 29, forecasts American farm exports increasing and predicts they will come in at $145 billion in 2013. That's a 50 percent increase from 2009.

Such a high export number gave me pause, since the USDA is also predicting that in the coming year U.S. corn exports will be at a 40-year low because of a domestic corn shortfall caused by the drought.

I got the chance to ask U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to break the numbers down for me over the phone on Monday, and here’s what he said:

We continue to have a broad array of agricultural products that are exported, which is why the overall number is higher. That includes not just grain but also livestock. Our livestock numbers continue to be strong. Our specialty crop numbers continue to be strong. Soybeans continue to be strong. Wheat continues to be strong. So any one commodity can go down when others are going up.

Specialty crops, soybean, wheat and livestock exports may be up now, but it will be a challenge to continue to grow export numbers when there’s no Farm Bill, Vilsack said. President Barack Obama's pledge to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014 under the National Export Initiative will likely also remain difficult, because the part of the Farm Bill that allocates resources to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the promotion of American exports expired on Oct. 1. 

“We’ve been sort of managing for the last couple of months but our ability to manage is going to probably expire at the end of the year,” Vilsack said.

If there is no Farm Bill by Jan. 1, Vilsack said, consumers will see dairy prices go up at the grocery store because old price supports will take effect. Other commodities like wheat, corn and soybeans will be significantly impacted if the bill continues to stay in limbo.

"You’ll eventually get into a situation where it’s quite complex," he said. "That’s why it’s important and necessary for folks to get the work done now."

I also asked the Secretary of Agriculture whether he was worried about competition from other big grain producers – like Brazil, Argentina and Ukraine – since this year for the first time pork and poultry producers on the East Coast imported grain instead of buying it domestically.

Vilsack said that didn't worry him -- we're in a competitive circumstance from an agricultural perspective.

“American agricultural quality and affordability are well-known throughout the world. As long as we can continue to promote agricultural exports then we’re going to continue to be able to compete,” he said. “As long as we continue to negotiate free trade agreements similar to those established this year with Korea, Panama and Colombia, we’re going to continue to expand market opportunities.”

However, that's something, Vilsack reiterated, that's contingent on passage of the Farm Bill.