Transcript of Remarks by Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer at 2008 Annual Meeting & Convention of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau Oklahoma City, Oklahoma November 14, 2008 | USDA Newsroom
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News Transcript

Release No. 0299.08
Press Office (202) 720-4623

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November 14, 2008

SEC. ED SCHAFER: Thank you, Mike. Thanks for the great introduction. Thank you for the warm welcome. I'm really pleased to be with you today. Good afternoon. It's great to be here in Oklahoma City with you all.

I want to give my thanks to Oklahoma Ag Commissioner Terry Peach. I saw Terry earlier today, and I'm glad that he could join us here as well. Thank you for your hospitality, Terry, in your state.

You know, I have to tell you that I really appreciate the invitation to be with you all today. I had agreed to be here some time ago, well before the election actually.


And with how turned out for the Republicans last Tuesday, I figured this might be my last invitation for a long, long time.


So I'm really glad to be with you.

You know, speaking of times, the last year as Secretary of USDA has gone by really fast, and I'm thinking now that I'm preparing to go back home to North Dakota, how it was to move in to Washington, DC, from our rural, open state of North Dakota? You know, we had some challenges to do that. You can imagine the changes were quite dramatic to move for us.

I was thinking that I was only going to be out there for a year; we committed to 14 months to be here through the end of the Bush administration. I was thinking, "I think I can survive the working place in Washington, DC."

I was always concerned because, you know, back home when we send people out to Washington, an elected official or head of a trade group or something like that, after they've been there for awhile they seem to lose that kind of common sense and good judgment. You worry about them a little bit.


In North Dakota we have a saying: "It must be something in the water," after they're there for awhile.

But I was very pleased upon arrival at USDA to find out we have these big blue water filters, reverse osmosis water filters on all of the coffee pots and drinking fountains and things like that. So in a short period of time with the water filters at USDA, I think I'm going to survive the time in Washington, and I look forward to getting back home to North Dakota soon as well.

But it's an exciting time in agriculture. Again thanks for your initiation to be with you.

I think we only have 66 days left to go in this administration, and it certainly is bringing into focus some of the issues that we've been dealing with. In fact, we expect the transition team from the Obama camp in our offices starting next week. They have got to get their own measure of things that go on and as we were thinking about that time of transition I thought I would share with you a few thoughts about what we've been up to over the past eight years in agriculture, what's happened, and offer a little roadmap of sorts on the major issues and decisions that lie ahead.

Senator Obama's election really has drawn attention all over the world because of who he is and because of the very positive things that his journey to the White House says about our country.

But in the coming years what's going to matter most to all of you who make your living in farming and ranching is what the President-elect's policies are, what he thinks about agriculture and trade and conservation, about renewable energy, about nutrition issues, and how his views translate into the public policy that we will all operate under.

I have to tell you it was a very pleasant surprise last week, two days after the election that we had a cabinet meeting, and I walked into the White House and I was kind of expecting doom and gloom, a lot of frowns and grumbling in the corners, and really wasn't too optimistic about the mood that was going to be there.

But, you know, when we went into the cabinet room, we sat down, and the president came in, and he said, "This is a great day in America," and he said he was really glad that you're here. He said that we had an election, and he said the orderly transfer of power and the peaceful transition from one administration to another is really a hallmark of what this country is all about. It's the strength of our republic, and it's something that all of us who have had the pleasure to serve should be really proud of, and certainly we are.

The President talked about watching TV on the night of the election, and he said, "You know while our candidate lost and we don't like that very much," but he said, "As we watched television and watched the tears streaming out of people's eyes as they said, "We never thought we would see this in America," he said, "this is a good thing, this election is a good thing, and it's bringing our people together."

That's why it's great to be an American, and it's great to be in the United States. I pass that along because it's great to be here with you as well.

These past eight years have been a time of remarkable prosperity for American agriculture, and with the Bush administration we ushered in I believe an unprecedented growth in the Ag economy.

And it is my hope that the Obama administration will look at the long line of our successes in agriculture and find ways to build on that in a bipartisan approach. The prosperity that we see in agriculture today is being driven by strong commodity prices, or at least until a couple of months ago.


By rising export demand and the rapid growth of the renewable fuel industry in rural America. This year the net cash farm income is on track for an all-time record of more than $100 billion-despite the increases that we see in the cost of feed and fuel and fertilizer and other farm inputs. We expect export sales to reach $114 billion, generating one-third of all cash receipts in United States farms.

A new global marketplace is emerging, and one billion new middle-class consumers are developing in what we call the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, and certainly in Mexico as well. As those economies grow they are driving strong demand for grain and also for beef and pork and chicken and dairy and processed foods as well. These are markets that America's farmers and ranchers are well positioned to serve and where they can hold their own against competitors.

All they need is fair access and a level playing field in the foreign markets and we'll get the job done. That's why President Bush has consistently made expanding free trade one of his very highest priorities.

The results from our nation's past efforts in this arena have been impressive. In 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement created a free trade zone covering the United States, Canada and Mexico, our agriculture exports to those countries were about $10 billion a year. We know there have been some bumps along the road for sure, but today Canada and Mexico rank as our number one and number two trading partners. They are our biggest markets, and our total exports in agriculture to those two countries should reach $30 billion this year.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement has been a similar success. Since it began to take effect in 2005 our agriculture exports to member nations have grown rapidly. Our export sales to the five nations that fully implemented the CAFTA-DR Agreement jumped to $2.3 billion in 2007, 67 percent higher than their pre-agreement level. They are up another 45 percent this year. All in all, the Bush administration has negotiated 17 free trade agreements. Of the 11 that have been fully implemented, our Ag exports have increased 76 percent.

The Bush administration is still pushing hard to finish up and conclude some of these free trade agreements including three with Colombia and Panama and Korea. Though we are still awaiting action by Congress on those three agreements, they've been hung up on presidential politics, couldn't get them on the floor. We think we have the votes to get them passed. We've had 400 members of Congress in various situations regarding these, including many of them in Colombia regarding the free trade agreements. These are good for our country, good for their country. And importantly now that the election is over, hopefully we can get some of these moved because, for instance, in the three countries I just mentioned-in Colombia, Korea, and Panama-if we can get these agreements signed [and] sealed in Congress it will mean $3 billion a year in new agriculture export opportunities for American farmers and ranchers. And we're excited about that, and we hope that soon we'll be seeing these trade agreements put in place to allow us to compete more and better in the global marketplace.

These trade agreements have opened the door for market share gains already by America's agriculture producers. And they also give us a legal guarantee, a legal framework, for which fair access to those markets continues in the future.

Of course, concerns about safety of the food imports can create trade barriers that are just as formidable as any tariff schedule. That is certainly one of the lessons that we learned from dealing with the fears of our trading partners after the first case of BSE appeared in our borders here within the United States in 2003. That experience led us to press even more strongly for the international acceptance of objective scientific standards as we set sanitary and phytosanitary standards.

You know, taking away the barriers of emotion, of politics, of competition, and moving into a measurable standard based on science is very important. And I think our approach has won growing acceptance around the world. It helped us win a classification as a controlled risk nation last year from the World Organization on Animal Health. And it helped us reopen markets around the world. Those efforts helped restore U.S. beef and beef product exports last year to $2.6 billion, about two-thirds of the level before the BSE restrictions.

The question for the next president is going to be whether we will continue to seek broader opportunities for our producers in the global markets, or will we pull back.

We notice-I'm sure some of you have read as well-that we have more anti-trade folks in Congress today; more isolationists won seats in Congress. And you know, if they prevail, this could be bad for agriculture, and I encourage President-elect Obama to take a hard look at this administration's record of success and record of agriculture growth and strength in economic activity before making any decisions about this.

We also must remember that what we are able to do abroad depends partly on the decisions that we make here at home-decisions about our domestic support programs. And to deserve the support of all Americans wherever they live, our safety net of farm programs must make a wise and efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Also to withstand challenges from our trading partners, they should be seen as market-based and not price-distorting.

And we worked hard in the new Farm Bill to try to bring some of those issues in including some reforms in setting loan rates and setting marketing issues and gross income rates for those who receive the subsidy payments.

Those safety net programs, along with the continued conservation and rural development with renewable energy initiatives, are all crucial for the future of rural America. And they all depend on strong and broad-based public support for our farm policy and for our farm programs.

President Bush has been a strong advocate for conservation throughout his time in office. In 2002 the Farm Bill marked an historic increase in funding for these programs, and in the 2008 Farm Bill it moved us even further ahead.

Together, these two landmark measures have increased funding for conservation programs by $21 billion. The conservation programs we now have in place prevent soil erosion, they preserve wildlife habitat, improve carbon capture and deliver environmental benefits as well, at the same time helping producers earn additional revenue from their land.

This administration has also invested an average of $14 billion a year in Rural Development projects, a 36 percent higher spending level than we had when we took office.

These investments have created or saved 2 million jobs in rural America. They brought broadband services to 2.7 million people and businesses. We spent $50 billion for rural infrastructure development, water treatment facilities and rural water delivery systems, community facilities. We've upgraded health care, emergency response services, while also committing over $800 million to renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

Yet we know that further investments are going to be needed to ensure that rural America enjoys the same access to services and economic opportunities as the more densely populated part of our country, and also allows rural America to compete in that global marketplace.

Part of the activity in rural America certainly is renewable fuels. The rapid growth in demand for renewable fuels has brought a dramatic economic change in rural America, and especially just over the last couple of years. It's created new jobs, new investing opportunities, while also enhancing America's energy security.

And yet while this industry has made remarkable progress in a short time-it's still evolving. It's still having impact. I know you have members here in this very room who have seen feed prices increase and had to deal with hard issues here, but today there's a broad, bipartisan agreement that to meet our nation's future energy needs we must develop our renewable fuel industry. We must look into biomass, feedstocks and the business models that go with them.

It is imperative for us in the United States to move to a more energy independent arena, to be able to be more self-sufficient for energy at home. And that also brings along a better environmental benefits and increased economic activity in rural America. The new Farm Bill provides $1 billion to help us with this effort. But you know we just need to continue to generate that public support that is needed to help this industry reach its full potential.

And I am excited about the opportunity to move into our second generation of ethanol, to be able to build this fuel with products that are waste products that are grown specifically for fuel, that don't impact the feed and food costs that we have.

Last week I was in a pilot facility in Colorado that's making fuel from wood chips. It's a pilot facility-the pilot is successful. We put the wood chips in the end of the facility, we waited for awhile, and it came to the other end, and fuel came out of the tap there. That's going to lead us. And we're hoping soon that United States Department of Agriculture will be able through our biomass energy loan programs to be able to do a loan guarantee for this new facility in Georgia that will be able to produce 100 million gallons of fuel made from wood chips.

And when we are able to move into that second generation, and we commercialize the opportunities in cellulosic feedstocks, it changes the face of how we generate energy in this country.

And I have to tell you also if we look at energy independence and the resulting economic activity, how important it can be in your lives. Because our effort is to replace about a billion barrels of foreign oil that we buy, and not only do we send our precious U.S. dollars overseas to do that but we get dependent on a lot of countries that don't like us very much.

And as we see this convergence of renewable fuels driven by agriculture, if we can replace that one billion barrels of oil that we now buy overseas by renewable energies from the agriculture arena, it doubles farm income in this country. Think about the economic activity in small towns and communities in areas across the United States of America if we can do that. That's how important these issues are.

But you know, in all of these arenas-in conservation, in rural development, in renewable fuels-President-elect Obama and his team will have a chance to consolidate the gains that we've made over the last eight years and lead America to even greater successes. And I certainly encourage them to do so.

They will have to confront the continuing challenge of food security both here at home and abroad.

Since 2001 this administration has worked to make sure that more people who are eligible for our domestic nutrition and food programs actually enroll and receive those benefits. We're proud of the range of participation, and the Food Stamp Program has climbed from 54 percent of those who are eligible in 2001 to 67 percent for those who are eligible the last time we measured in 2006.

On the international front, we face the urgent reality of a world population that will grow by more than 70 million people this year and it will continue to grow at those rates. We have to find a way to feed all these new mouths. We have to way to feed people without any more land in the world. The UN estimates that the number of hungry people worldwide this year climbed 75 million, and now its stands at roughly 925 million people in this world today that are hungry. And for all of us in food and agriculture, this is the challenge of the 21st century.

Our administration has worked to develop long-term solutions to world hunger, and there are many dimensions to this challenge. But we believe meeting them will require us to share more than just our surplus commodities. That's what we have traditionally done. We are proud that America's citizens provide over 50 percent of all the world's food aid today.

But we need to help other countries boost their production, increase their yields. We need to share with them our experiences, our background, how they can grow their own food and feed their own people. We need to export our techniques, our hybrids and our biotech crops. We need to help them develop agriculture infrastructure, water use and fertilizer machines. We need to look at precision farming and the ways that we can help folks all over this world feed themselves. As this world develops, it's our responsibility.

Once again it's going to be up to the next president to decide whether we'll continue to break away from past policies or are we going to stay the course.

We're proud of the way we're moving forward. I've personally talked to leaders in country after country after country that say, "Thank you, to the citizens of the United States of American, not only for the commodities and food that you give us to help feed hungry people, but for your willingness to share with us the way that we can develop our own agriculture so that we can be self-sufficient in our country."

Those are some of the good things that are happening, that have happened over the last eight years.

You know there are some things that we haven't done so well. That brings me to a public service announcement.

I was thinking about Oklahoma when I was on my way down here this morning in the airplane, and there is an area where we haven't performed so well in Oklahoma, and that's certainly with our animal premise ID. I know we've had trouble in getting you to sign up. Some of you are worried about that. Let me tell you, as we look at food safety, as we implement the COOL legislation, country of origin labeling legislation, as we look for food security and terrorism attacks in agriculture, we must find a way to be able to trace our food back to producers. We have to be able to contain, define and handle any issues that might come up. And animal ID is a way to do so.

I would encourage you all-here's the public service announcement part-to sign up because it's important public policy. And it's certainly something you want to do on a voluntary basis without telling you that Congress thinks they have to get involved and make it mandatory-it's not going to be a good thing. They will mess it up somehow.


But get out there and sign up. We promise, at USDA, if you go into your local FSA office and sign up, we'll make it easy, painless, and carefree. We're not throwing in any goodies to take home, but it is important and I urge you to all sign up on this program.

President-elect Obama and my successor, whomever that may be, certainly have my sincere best wishes in dealing with all the global dilemmas that we're facing. Certainly they have my best wishes in continuing our efforts to advance and protect and to take care of the agriculture arena in the United States of America today, the agriculture arena that provides the most abundant and safest and least expensive food system in the whole world.

The challenge before us will be to find a way to engage the entire world on agriculture issues, but also continue to look after the interests of rural America. I think if they take the time to go back a bit, they're going to find out that they won't be starting from scratch. There's a lot of base there, there's a lot of strength in place, and we're well along the way. I encourage the new administration to continue on with the directions that we're going.

In closing, I want to let you know about something I learned as Secretary of Agriculture. I came to realize that the common language in the world is agriculture. We've dealt all over this country with producers, with farmers and ranchers and landowners who are leaders, who are building our communities, who talk to each other in the language of agriculture, who realize that strength.

I thought I'd give you three quick examples here about how that language of agriculture changes the world.

You know, in 1862 when President Lincoln founded the United States Department of Agriculture he called it the People's Department. He called it the People's Department because it affects so many people's lives in so many different ways. And indeed it does.

Actually I had jotted down three examples I wanted to give you, and I'm going to give you the fourth one today. I have four because I had the opportunity this morning to go through the Murrah Federal Building Memorial, and there was an example there that struck me about the language of agriculture as well.

I first want to tell you about the World Food Prize. The World Food Prize was given out a few weeks ago in Des Moines, Iowa. The winners this year were Senator McGovern and Senator Dole.

You know, their work in food was important. As young senators they got together and they revamped the Food Stamp program. They started the School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. They looked at those programs and said, "It's important for people to eat and to have food that's nutritious in this country, and we need to help." And they did. They expanded that; they said well if we did that in the U.S. we should probably do it overseas; we should export America's benevolence. And they put together the McGovern-Dole Food Program. Over 22 million children across the world are given food so that they aren't hungry and have the opportunity to learn.

When the World Food Prize was given to these two gentlemen, we were in the chambers of the Iowa Legislature in the capital. And wouldn't you know, these two old work horses as we sat there were seated across the aisle from each other. And it was mentioned in the delivery of the prize and the recognition of that what they did, they had reached across the aisle to work together, Republican and Democrat, to advance food and nutrition for the world. And you know, when they said that, these two gentlemen reached physically across the aisle and held hands when we were there at that ceremony.

And you know, that says to me the language of agriculture is lending that helping hand. It's that hand of friendship and that hand of hard work.

I also was reminded of the language of agriculture not too along ago. I was out in California I was having school lunch with some fourth graders. And right before we went in to have the school lunch I was in the biology class and a little student raised his hand and he said, "Hey, is it true that if you find two strawberries that are grown together, if you give it a girl that she'll fall in love with you?"


I said, "Yes, of course, absolutely." So the language of agriculture can be love for sure.

But I was struck this morning as well when we were at the Murrah Federal Building Memorial and saw the Survivor Tree, and the important role that agriculture plays there. The language of agriculture says: "Survival and strength and life-all rooted in faith," as it says there.

The fourth example I want to give you of the language of agriculture is from Iraq and Afghanistan. We have USDA employees in Iraq and Afghanistan-two totally different countries. Iraq, a country that had 20 years of despotic leadership and they had seen the whole agriculture infrastructure system deteriorate into virtually nothing. In Afghanistan, a country that never had an agriculture system develop there, our people at USDA are over there taking what you teach them to strengthen agriculture, and they are teaching folks to grow crops and to get them off the field and to get them marketed.

We're building infrastructure and roads and a water system, storage places, all the things you expect about infrastructure. And as I had a chance to visit with them once in a while over interactive video, I'd ask them, "Okay, so you're doing all that stuff for agriculture, what about the people, what's it like dealing with the people?" And they said, "You know, we go out in the fields and we work hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder with these folks. And when it's all over, they take us to their homes. And we go in the homes and we eat with them and their families. And we go to their weddings and their funerals too. And you become their friends. And, you know, there's peace in those households."

And the language of agriculture certainly is peace as people get together with that common language of agriculture. And all of you are involved in that. And I'm very proud of what you do every day to lift up this country and others around the world. I want to thank you for all of your efforts. I look forward to watching from the sidelines as you continue to grow and improve and to do better and to take that knowledge and export it across your neighbors, across your neighborhoods and your communities, across this country and in fact across the world-because I have no doubt in my mind that the language of agriculture brings peace to this world.

So I appreciate what you do. It's a huge honor for me to be here today. May God bless you all in your continued efforts. Thank you