With a record year for exports in the making and another one likely in Fiscal 2012, the outlook for U.S. agriculture is good. Add the fact farm cash receipts are on a record pace exceeding increases in cash production expenses for the current year, and even the skeptical observer might conclude the industry is on a roll.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack thinks so, noting at the recent USDA World Agricultural Outlook Forum, "The safest bet in America (today) is American agriculture."
And he quickly added, "Despite the challenges and the difficulties we confront, I have the utmost confidence in our capacity and our ability to meet these challenges."
While he took a somewhat different look at U.S. agriculture, former President Bill Clinton shares that optimistic view. His main qualifier was that the nation doesn’t "pretend what we did yesterday will be sufficient to solve tomorrow’s problems when (what we did) really didn’t work yesterday in a less complicated world."
Vilsack noted, in light of rising food costs, there might appear to be a need to "take the foot off the gas in terms of exports in order to rebuild supplies" and limit further price hikes.
"But we’re not going to do that," he affirmed, adding exports and American farm productivity can be stimulated even more by addressing some key issues. Among the challenges he cited were:
• Pursuing and enacting free trade agreements with other nations to eliminate tariffs and other trade barriers limiting American agricultural exports, especially livestock products.
• Embracing "the opportunities science presents to increase productivity worldwide." Projected growth in world population is a challenge U.S. farmers alone can’t meet. Farmers, ranchers and growers around the world also must boost their output if food supplies are to meet demand in the future.
• Maintaining a commitment to renewable energy and fuel to lessen the nation’s dependence on oil imports. Although there are calls to scale back or end that commitment, the effort will help rebuild and revitalize rural communities.
• Working with other nations to avoid "mistakes" that created a food crisis several years ago and helping them increase their own production by encouraging investments in research and building the equivalent of the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service in those countries.
• Working with other governmental agencies, particularly the Environmental Protection Agency, to minimize adverse impacts on agriculture from new regulations and requirements.
• Maintaining a safety net for producers while also getting federal budget deficits under control.
Expanding on one of Vilsack’s points, Clinton told the Ag Forum audience that growing crops for biofuel production is important for reducing dependence on foreign oil. However, farmers also should look beyond that goal and also consider the needs of developing countries.
We have to become energy independent, he said, "but we don’t want to do it at the cost of food riots elsewhere." Finding a balance between energy independence and producing food at reasonable prices for both U.S. and overseas consumers is essential, he added.
Supporting Vilsack’s call to help other nations improve their ability to feed their own people, Clinton emphasized doing so presented no threat to U.S. farmers and their sales abroad. Population increases and improved standards of living in developing countries will continue to expand markets for what American farmers produce.
It’s important to realize developing countries can’t skip over strengthening their agricultural base and go directly to having an industrial economy, he asserted. Experience shows short cuts don’t work.
Clinton’s own foundation supports agricultural development projects in a number of countries, including Rwanda where a co-op of coffee producers has arranged direct sales of their product to hundreds of European outlets. That effort, he said, is helping reduce inequality and instability in a nation that not that long ago made headlines due to the genocide resulting from an ethnic clash and power struggle.
The former President said the world today faces three major problems:
• Increasing inequalities in wealth around the world and within individual countries, including our own. A billion people worldwide go to bed hungry every night and millions of children never go to school. Also, the current unrest in the Middle East has underscored "what (the people there) were dealing with in terms of inequality."
• Growing instability which, among other things, makes predictability more difficult. One notable example is the recent monetary crisis whose impact quickly spread around the globe.
• Climate change and resource depletion. The way we produce and consume energy has to change, and serious water problems around the world threaten to aggravate political instabilities.
No one has any easy answers for these issues, but there’s a clear need to start thinking and talking about them in a rational way, Clinton emphasized. One of his concerns was that these and other issues have been debated, but most often in a "knee-jerk, facts-free way."
Commenting on world population growth, Clinton hopes the current political upheavals in the Middle East and elsewhere will result in elevating the status of women and girls. The education of girls and providing access to work and career opportunities for women represent a noncontroversial way to slow population increases, he noted.
Clinton also recalled the childhood days he spent on a small farm in rural Arkansas and the never-ending struggle to make ends meet.
"I got into politics because I didn’t want to work that hard," he said. Over the audience’s laughter, he added, "We’re laughing, but it’s true."