Mr. Vilsack illustrated the importance the export marketplace plays in sustaining U.S. agriculture in terms of profitability and jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects a $31 billion trade surplus next year, compared to a current $27 billion surplus. Every $1 billion in surplus is equivalent to 8,000 to 9,000 jobs, he said. Mr. Vilsack added that many new opportunities for U.S. exports need to be identified and existing trade barriers need to be resolved.
“We [U.S.D.A.] are focused on developing new markets, especially where the middleclass population is expanding,” he said. “We also need to break down unscientific trade barriers. We also need to finalize these pending free-trade agreements [Colombia, South Korea and Panama]. “Hopefully, South Korea will be approved quickly.”
Cattle producers expressed concern to Mr. Vilsack that less than 16 legislative days are left on the Congressional calendar until the estate tax reverts back to its staggering pre-2001 levels. If Congress doesn’t act, starting Jan. 1, 2011, farm estates worth $1 million will be taxed at a rate of 55%.
“We have to make sure the vast majority of agriculture is not impacted by the estate tax,” Secretary Vilsack stressed. “I believe that is the intent of Congress, although they haven’t done it yet. We will continue to push for that.”
The topic of unprecedented environmental regulations on dust proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency was also an issue of concern for cattle producers. Mr. Vilsack said he accepts full responsibility for U.S.D.A. but can’t speak for E.P.A. He said E.P.A. Administrator Lisa Jackson is doing a tour of rural America and meeting with producers at his request.
“I told her ‘You’ve got to get out and talk to producers,’” he said. “A lot of folks in this town have never been on a farm but assume they know the impact of regulations on agriculture.”
F.D.A.’s draft guidance document, The Judicious Use of Medically Important Antimicrobial Drugs in Food-Producing Animals, concerns cattle producers due to the lack of science. Cattle producers also expressed concerns over U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter’s (D-NY) Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which would phase out the use of some antibiotics in the livestock industry.
“I’ve communicated to Rep. Slaughter, my support of the judicious use of antibiotics,” Mr. Vilsack said. “The vast majority of producers do not abuse the use of antibiotics in livestock production. I told her you cannot ban this. It doesn’t make sense. U.S.D.A.'s public position is, and always has been, that antibiotics need to be used judiciously and we believe they already are.”