Bright, strong and positive outlook: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture shares viewports on ag industry
Washington, D.C. – In the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 98th Annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack provided the keynote address. Deputy Secretary Jewel Bronaugh shared, this event has provided producers information on agricultural exports, commodity price predictions and more since 1923.
The forum, held virtually Feb. 24-25, addresses topics such as: food price and farm income outlooks; U.S. trade and the global marketplace; supply chain resilience; climate mitigation and adaptation; frontiers in ag production and technology; and equity and inclusion.
“With the ongoing, but waning pandemic, lingering supply chain issues, high input costs, sporadic avian influenza, threat of African swine fever and the tragic and unsetting Ukrainian situation, one could assume the ag outlook could be sour and uncertain,” Vilsack shared. “But, that’s not my position, and I don’t think it should be yours either.”
“I believe American agriculture is resilient, and I believe America’s farmers, ranchers and producers are committed to a sustainable future,” he continued, “and for this reason, I believe the outlook for agriculture is bright, strong and positive.”
Vilsack shared, his mother would always say, “Eliminate the negative and extenuate the positive,” and the USDA is “eliminating the negative to the extent we can and extenuating the positive.”
Earlier this week, Vilsack was in Dubai on a trade mission which resulted in what he called “extraordinary opportunities” for American agriculture.
“The positive message from this activity is, once again and for the first time in two years, the U.S. was on a trade mission – in person,” Vilsack said.
He noted there were 41 participants in this trade mission – 25 companies, eight departments of agriculture, six commodity-based cooperatives and two regional-based cooperatives. The delegation “engaged in 300 meetings with businesses and buyers in the Dubai market. It was a tremendous success and reflects the important keys USDA is emphasizing in terms of markets: The agriculture industry needs presence, people and promotions in order to sell.”
Vilsack shared the trade mission had great participation, mainly due to Foreign Agriculture Service employees who work to promote American agricultural products. Because of this trade mission, the USDA was able to participate in the Gulf Foods Show and establish relationships with buyers in the region.
“This is an important market for us,” Vilsack said, noting the market holds potential for a gateway into the African market. “We need to pay attention to the market in this region because half of the world’s population increase is expected to take place on this continent.”
Along with the story of the successful trade mission in Dubai, Vilsack noted 2021 was a record year for exports, and producers can expect billions of dollars of export increases in 2022.
“I think this reflects the importance of trade missions,” Vilsack said. “Expect USDA to be aggressive in looking for opportunities to expand export markets: It is important for us to diversify our export efforts.”
Vilsack also mentioned the department’s focus in expanding processing capacity for livestock and poultry, and shared three announcements in this arena.
“The USDA is accepting applications for $150 million of grant money for those interested in building or expanding processing capacity as of today,” he said. These grants top out at $25 million and may be used for expanding capacity, facilities or equipment.
Vilsack continued, “USDA is looking to benefit small operations, new and beginning farmers, veteran-owned operations and other historically underserved producers. We are excited to make this initial $150 million available to expand capacity and increase competition, which we know will support stronger prices.”
In addition, Vilsack announced USDA recognizes the fact they need to provide additional technical assistance in offering opportunities through grants and loans, including business plan preparation and searching for marketing opportunities. Therefore, he announced USDA is making $25 million available in resources to expand technical assistance to “make sure we are getting information to those who need it and want it.”
“USDA also recognizes, as part of expanding capacity, we have to address workforce issues,” Vilsack said, announcing $40 million to strengthen this effort. Funds will expand training opportunities through cooperative Extension, community colleges and technical schools, which will be needed to “expand capacity and competition if we are to have a strong, bright and positive livestock and poultry outlook.”
Vilsack shared producers can expect to see an additional $500 million in the form of grants and loans this summer as USDA makes expanding capacity a continued effort in 2022.
While expanding resources for producers, Vilsack noted it is also the mission of USDA to ensure the production game is fair.
“USDA is working to begin the process of publishing and making available for comment a number of changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act,” he said, explaining the department is starting with the poultry tournament system, followed by rules for discrimination and retaliation and finally outlining undue preference. “We want to send a strong message that we are on the side of the producer.”
Supporting food systems
Vilsack is “positive about future efforts of local and regional food systems,” noting USDA is working to provide greater opportunity at each level of production. One particular focus is the importance of the added value organic label.
“We know there are farmers now converting portions of operations, as well as young and beginning farmers interested in starting an organic operation,” he said. “We understand the needs of mentorship, the importance of investing in market development and recognize the need to expand and broaden markets. USDA will continue to provide support and structure of the organic brand domestically and in imports.”
To support the organic label, USDA will be providing financial support for those transitioning, as well as support and assistance for those producers looking to directly market their products.
“Many want the opportunity to sell directly to consumers and negotiate their own price,” Vilsack said. “We want to make sure to create infrastructure to support local food systems across the board.”
In addition, Vilsack explained USDA is deeply concerned about “climate and the challenges it creates for agriculture.” Though, he recognizes the opportunities climate-based challenges create for agriculturists.
“Consumers in the market are demanding to know when they purchase an item, they are helping the environment,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to be supportive, and USDA is offering $1 billion in a challenge to small and large American producers to present what a climate smart commodity can and should be.”
He notes producers may also quality for financial support through private industry initiatives for climate smart practices.
“Agriculture used to be about production and farmers responded,” Vilsack said. “The game is changing, and it’s not just about production anymore, but also about sustainability. American ag needs to lead the change.”
Supply chain issues
While recognizing many opportunities in agriculture, Vilsack noted supply chain issues remain a challenge. First, he addresses strong fertilizer demand and increased prices.
“We want demand and we want it to be strong,” he said. “But, high natural gas prices and export controls by countries limiting the amount of fertilizer available to the U.S. are impacting this.”
He shared there are alternatives when it comes to raising crops, and conversely, conservation programs may be incorporated into operations to offset costs of production without fertilizer. Vilsack also explained there are risk management options for those looking to reduce nitrogen applications.
“High input costs are a challenge, but less of a challenge if prices support increasing input costs,” he said, noting the USDA is in full support of an announcement by state attorney generals to investigate fertilizer cost increases.
Bringing his speech back to where he started – exports – Vilsack recognized current issues at ports of entry.
“USDA’s focus is more so on empty containers leaving U.S. ports without first being filled by American products,” he said. “We recently announced the Port of Oakland opportunity to fill empty containers, including financial incentive to do so, and this can potentially expand to other ports.”
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.