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Vilsack: Ag outlook ‘bright, strong, positive’

In his keynote speech today at the Agriculture Department’s online annual Agricultural Outlook Forum, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that, despite problems around the world, the outlook for U.S. agriculture is “bright, strong and positive.”

Vilsack said he wanted to adopt his mother’s advice to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.” At a news conference later, he said his role is “to accentuate the positive and do what we can within the powers that we have to eliminate the negative.”

Responding to reporters’ questions about the impact of war in Ukraine, Vilsack said his thoughts and prayers are with the people affected by the Russian invasion, but that it is too early to make projections about what impacts the war will have on fertilizer and food prices in the United States. He added that the situation might be quite different in Europe, but pointed out that the United States has “tremendous production capacity.”



Vilsack said that the Biden administration will be supportive of state attorneys general analyzing the history of fertilizer pricing. He said his biggest concern about fertilizer is that companies may be taking advantage of farmers and added he “sincerely” hopes no company is using the current situation to do things “that are not justified by supply and demand.”

The spike in fertilizer prices comes out of a complex situation, Vilsack noted, including other countries putting in place export controls. Farmers need to understand there are alternatives to buying the same amount of fertilizer at high prices, including planting different crops, using less fertilizer and adopting conservation practices.



PROCESSING PLANT GRANTS

Vilsack announced that USDA is now accepting applications for the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP), which provides grants to help eligible processors expand their capacity. The intent of the program is to encourage competition and sustainable growth in the U.S. meat processing sector, and to help improve supply chain resiliency.

The amount of MPPEP money available now is $150 million and the grants will be up to $25 million each to expand processing capacity through a variety of activities, including but not limited to construction, expansion of existing facilities, and acquisition of equipment. Applications are due by April 11.

USDA will also make $25 million available for technical assistance and $40 million for help building the agricultural workforce through community colleges and other institutions. Vilsack said he expects to make another $500 million available in grants and loans for processing capacity later this summer.

On livestock, Vilsack said USDA will address complaints about the Packers and Stockyards Act by issuing rules for comment about changes to it. The rules will first address the poultry tournament system, then discrimination and finally undue preference, he said.

USDA also wants to help farmers who sell regionally and locally as well as organic farmers, including those in the Northeast where there may be an “oversupply” of production, he said.

DUBAI AG TRADE MISSION

In his speech, which was delivered online, Vilsack noted that he had just returned from an agricultural trade mission to Dubai, which was the first in two years, Vilsack pointed out that U.S. agricultural exports hit a record last year and that USDA expects exports to be even higher this year.

While in Dubai, Vilsack and the 41 U.S. participants who accompanied him were able to connect with buyers in the Middle East and Africa, he added. The Dubai trip, he added, is part of an effort to diversify exports beyond China, which is the No. 1 U.S. customer.

Vilsack also noted that his trip to Dubai included a meeting of the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate, its joint initiative with the United Arab Emirates to encourage countries, companies and nonprofits to invest more in climate-smart agriculture. That project, he said, puts the United States in a leadership position on climate change and agriculture.

Vilsack noted that in his previous position as CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council he discussed the U.S. dairy industry’s commitment to moving to zero carbon emissions with Japanese executives who import cheese and they said their customers would want to know about these efforts.

After his speech, the Outlook Forum featured a video in which Vilsack interviewed Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist who is an adviser to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Economy said that Chinese President Xi Jinping wants China to be a leader on the world stage and to encourage other countries to adopt its form of government.

Vllsack said that China’s ambitions and the complications of the U.S.-China relationship demonstrate that the United States needs to diversify its export markets.


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