Transcript Of Tele-News Conference With Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Washington, D.C. - January 24, 2005
MODERATOR: "Good afternoon from Washington. I'm Larry Quinn speaking to you from the Broadcast Center of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Welcome to today's news conference with the 28th Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns.
"Reporters, if you want to ask a question during our question and answer period today, simply press "1" on your telephone touch pad and that puts you in our line-up for questions.
"Now it is my pleasure to introduce Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary.
SEC. MIKE JOHANNS: "Well, good afternoon. It is great to be here. I should maybe start with a thought or two.
"This is my first full day as Secretary, at least on the job. I was sworn in last Friday, and for me it is a dream come true. I'm excited about the opportunities ahead.
"I had an opportunity this morning to speak to our employees here. One of the things that I emphasized to them is that my whole goal as I work with people is to make sure that I treat them with dignity, with respect, with equality. I told them about my background. I grew up on a dairy farm in Mitchell County, Iowa, which is in north-central Iowa. I've always had a passion for agriculture. So when the president nominated me it truly was a dream come true.
"A couple other things I'd just like to say before we take questions. I was so honored to be nominated by our president, President Bush. What a thrill it was for me. So I want to say thank you to him.
"I also want to say thank you to the Senate Ag Committee, Chairman Chambliss, Ranking Member Harkin. We had a great hearing a few weeks ago, and the Senate expeditiously dealt with my nomination, and I appreciated that so much.
"So to the United States Senate I just tell them, thank you for the confidence they have expressed in me. And I'm anxious to go to work and excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. So been a busy few days, and I suspect there will be a lot of busy days ahead."
MODERATOR: "And it's time to begin our questions from reporters now, with a reminder that if you will press "1" on your telephone touch pad that will put you in line for a question.
"And our first question today will come from Josh St. Peters with Brownfield Network. Go ahead, Josh."
QUESTION: "Good afternoon, Secretary, and thank you. I'm curious. It seems that much of your nomination process seemed to be overshadowed by the announcement of another case of BSE from Canada. What can you tell us about your plans in this role now, beyond the cattle issues we face here in North America?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Great question, Josh. You're absolutely right. I walked into the hearing, and we've spent a lot of time talking about trade issues in Japan and Canada. But needless to say, I want to do much more than work on those issues.
"What I would offer is this. You would not have to look very far into my background to see the kind of agenda that I will have. First and foremost, that statement about treating our employees, our customers, with respect and dignity and equality is very important to me. And I can't emphasize that enough over and over again.
"Secondly, value-added agriculture, I just believe, is a very important part of our future. It manifested itself in my role as governor of Nebraska with a very, very large investment in our state in ethanol. That whole biofuels area, I just believe, is just a tremendous opportunity for growth.
"I can spout statistics like, in our state, about one in every five or six bushels of corn is processed into ethanol. So value-added agriculture of all forms is important.
"Rural economic development. I spoke to an employee today, and we had a nice conversation about the work that they're doing in better housing stock across the country. And that's all a piece of it. But doing everything we can to improve the vitality of our small communities across the country, so you'll see a significant emphasis there.
"You'll also see a significant emphasis in terms of what we do kind of on the other side of the spectrum which is our Nutrition Programs. I cited some statistics to employees today about the good work that we do in schools with our free and reduced lunch program. You know, at any given time in our country there are millions of people that are dependent upon what we do in our nutrition programs. That could be Food Stamps, that could be programs that are in our schools, and they do a lot of great work.
"And then, you know, there's the things that the USDA is noted for, the science, statistics, making sure that those things work well.
"The final thing I want to mention, and again this is just an important area. This is a very large federal agency, about 113,000 employees, and most importantly I want to make sure that it's running well, that we dot the I's and cross the T's and make sure that as a federal agency we're really, truly one of the best if not the best in terms of our operations and how we conduct ourselves and handle ourselves in a very businesslike sort of way."
MODERATOR: "Our next question will come from Dan Looker from Successful Farming, and he'll be followed by Ken Rahjes who should be standing by.
"You mentioned that you've gotten a lot of support from the Senate, and I think that's very true. In talking to members of the Senate this last week a number of them said they had met with you to talk to you about a number of issues, and they seemed to be pleased with the opportunity.
"One of those senators is Senator Tim Johnson from South Dakota who is still a very, very strong supporter of country-of-origin labeling. And he said that he had a chance to talk to you about that issue. And I wondered if you could tell us whether you think the administration will change its past position on country-of-origin labeling and support implementation of that part of the Farm Bill as a result of the discovery of mad cow disease, the third case in Canada."
SEC. JOHANNS: "As I have said to the Senate Committee, the Administration's position has been a voluntary position on country-of-origin labeling. And without hesitation I said to the committee, if confirmed, and now that I am the Secretary, I will support the Administration's position.
"I'm also very mindful of the law, and what I said to the Committee is that: never let there be any doubt that I will follow the law.
"I have no idea, I have not had a specific conversation with the Administration about what the intentions are on COOL. Again, I would emphasize that I will work with the Administration and work with Congress on the issue. So we'll see what unfolds.
"But that's what I said to the Committee, and that's what I would indicate now that I've been confirmed and sworn in."
MODERATOR: "Our next questioner is Ken Rahjes from Rural Radio Network in Lexington, Nebraska. And Matt Kaye should be standing by.
"Ken, go ahead with your question."
QUESTION: "Thank you, Larry.
"Good morning, Mr. Secretary, from your home state of Nebraska. My question is, many have talked about the reopening of Japan to the beef trade. Will that be one of your first items on your agenda to go over there, meet face to face with them, and to reassure them and to work quickly as possible to gain access to that market once again?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Yes. Ken, it's great to hear your voice, and send my warm regards to my fellow Nebraskans back there.
"I had the opportunity today to speak on this issue of beef trade with Japan. And let me offer just a couple of thoughts. Some of this you heard in my testimony.
"I could not be stronger in my belief that this has to be, really, my top priority. Many things on the priority list, but this really rises to the top.
"I've been to Japan on a number of occasions. We have had a very warm, friendly relationship on a personal level, and we've had a great trading relationship with Japan through the years.
"When the whole issue of BSE first surfaced in the United States because of the cow that's been dubbed 'the cow that stole Christmas,' there was an immediate reaction worldwide. But as we've worked with countries on the science-based approach, really country after country has reopened their borders to our beef. Now we're really anxious to cement the deal, if you will, ink the deal with Japan. And I see every reason to believe that we can do that.
"Why do I say that? We've spent the last year working on the technical aspects. We've had delegations there. We've answered the scientific questions, the technical questions, and all of those things. And I really believe that the day has arrived for trade to resume between our two countries on beef.
"Here's the very important point. I don't want anything to happen because of the transition from one secretary of agriculture to a new secretary of agriculture. I don't want anything to happen to indicate a slow-down in the process to reopen the borders. Let me say as emphatically as I can, I intend to do everything I can to reopen trade.
"It's a very, very important relationship we have. We're going to do everything we can to reopen trade on beef. I just want to emphasize, this is my top priority. I'm going to do every possible thing to move this agenda along."
MODERATOR: "Our next question comes from Matt Kaye with Berns Bureau. And standing by should be Scott Schultz.
"Matt, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Let me ask you a question I didn't get to ask this morning. And that is, going back to your earlier answer about the COOL program. You seem to continue to nuance your answer a bit in saying that there is a statute on the books and you have to enforce that despite the Administration's support of voluntary labeling of meat.
"But will you aggressively push for a change in the law so that the program is voluntary as the House Agriculture Committee has voted to try to make it?
"And secondly, on conservation, will you push for changes in the Conservation Security Program, as Senator Harkin has asked you to do, to make that program a better program with better payment rates that farmers want to participate in?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "On the first issue of COOL, let there be no nuance. The Administration's position is voluntary, and that's the position of this Secretary of Agriculture. That's about as straightforward as I possibly can be on that.
"And again I recognize that there's current law on the books. I've not had a specific discussion with the Administration about what their plans are for the future. But again let there be no doubt that the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns stands with the Administration.
"On your second issue, the whole issue of conservation, I was asked that question, and Senator Harkin has a significant interest in conservation. You won't have to look very far in my background as governor to indicate my support for conservation programs.
"It's been a rather remarkable marriage of environmental groups, hunting groups, ag groups -- in terms of their support for the conservation program.
"You know what, it comes down to is this. We have to do it in a way that meets the budget expectations that we have. We have to do it in a way that the program works. Again I'm a supporter. I like the Conservation Programs. The President has spoken in support of them, and so I'll do whatever I can within the budget limitations I have to continue to move that agenda forward."
MODERATOR: "I'd remind reporters that if you do have a question to ask, please press "1" on your telephone touch pad, and that will signal us of your question request.
"And our next question comes from Scott Schultz from Country Today News. Scott, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Good morning. First of all if I could follow up on the BSE issue, the previous question was answered saying that you were going to be taking an aggressive approach to reopening the trade. I assumed you meant with Japan particularly. But does that mean that you'll also be aggressive in reopening the border with Canada?
"And then my main question is, during the presidential campaign much in the upper Midwest was made of the Milk Income Loss Contract program by the presidential candidates, especially by President Bush. Would you be aggressive in supporting the extension of the Milk Income Loss Contract?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "I'll address your second question first. I was asked this during the Senate confirmation hearing. The President spoke about this issue very specifically when he was in Wisconsin, and indicated that he would work with Congress for the extension of the Milk Program. And needless to say, that's the position of myself as Secretary of Agriculture. I'm very anxious to work with Congress to carry out the President's wishes in that regard.
"In terms of the trade issue, your observation is correct. My idea of the discussion I've had is relative to Japan in getting those borders open.
"Let me, if I might, address the issue with Canada, as your question, I think, calls for me to offer a thought or two on that. The first thing I'd want to say is, my promise to the Committee was that I would immediately come up to speed on everything available at my disposal at the USDA relative to the Canadian rule. And as a matter of fact, I'm doing that. I've scheduled a series of meetings.
"In fact my first real day on the job is today, and in about an hour and a half I'll go into my first meetings in this area and I just fully expect to be immersed in this whole area for the days ahead.
"The other thing I wanted to mention, there is some litigation out there. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that. R-CALF has made us aware of its intention to file a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent the minimal risk rule from taking effect on March 7. Our lawyers are working with their lawyers on a joint scheduling order for this motion. Our objective is to get the motion briefed and argued on a mutually acceptable timetable so the judge will have the benefit of hearing everyone's point of view before reaching his decision.
"I wanted you to be aware of that because, again, I think your question kind of gets into this whole area."
MODERATOR: "A reminder once again, if you'd like to ask a question press "1" on the telephone touch pad so you can be in queue here. Our next question comes from Josh St. Peters, Brownfield Network. Josh."
QUESTION: "Mr. Secretary, some critics have said that the previous Administration at USDA, the previous secretary, had some struggles in relating to grain and livestock producers, specifically in the Midwest. Does that concern you at all coming into this post that you may need to work on that some as the head of USDA?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Well, I was the governor of a state that produced a lot of grain and livestock, and I can say Secretary Veneman related to me and to our producers very well. So let me just put that to rest. I don't think I've had a more responsive relationship than I had with Secretary Veneman. And boy, we called on the USDA a lot because of drought over the last five years.
"So I just want to say to her, thank you and thank you for four years of great service. We appreciated the working relationship.
"The other thing I would mention, you know maybe it does come a little bit easier for me just simply because of my background. I did grow up on a dairy farm in Iowa. When I visited with the President about his intention to nominate me I said, 'You know, I don't want to be boastful but I don't think there's anything more I could have done as governor in this whole area of promoting agriculture in the United States.'
"You know, I've chaired just about every important governors committee, co-chair, co- lead governor on reauthorization of the Farm Bill, drought issues. It just kind of really does go on and on. Agriculture is a passion.
"So I think the relationship will be good. I've been very gratified by the really significant support I've had across the country as I made my way through the Senate process. So to all of those groups out there that may be listening in, thanks for your support."
MODERATOR: "Our next question will come from Peter Shinn of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters. And standing by should be Bob Hoff.
"Peter, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Thank you very much, Larry.
"And Mr. Secretary, my question is, Jerry Moran of Kansas has said that he thinks you'll use your position as U.S. Ag Secretary as a bully pulpit for agriculture. To the extent that the story of the inexpensiveness of current U.S. farm programs hasn't gotten out there and to the extent that the story that over half of USDA's budget is on Nutrition Programs, it seems like there's a lot of attacks on the ag programs without a full knowledge of the facts by the people that are attacking ag programs.
"How does USDA get its message out that it's more than about just farmers and that the funding for farmers is actually less than most people think it is?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Well, you've raised a very valid point. Let me take a swing at that if I could. Your observation is correct; about 55 percent of the USDA budget is for nutrition programs. A significant part of the USDA budget goes to the Forest Service. They do very important, positive work. And, you know, a lesser percent goes into the ag programs, the subsidy programs.
"I would also offer a thought about the subsidy programs. You know, there's always this debate about what's the right balance and the right mix and this, that, and the next thing. But I do know one thing that's pretty obvious to me. I'm mostly a consumer now. There was a day when I was the farmer's son, and I was on the production end of the food chain. But today I'm mostly a consumer.
"This weekend my wife Stephanie and I walked into a couple of grocery stores in this part of the world. We were able to walk down aisles fully stocked with very affordable foods, all kinds of foods, tremendous array of foods, entirely safe. And I will also share with you that as an American consumer I spend less of my disposable income on feeding myself and my wife and my family than just about any other place in the world.
"Isn't that a remarkable thing that we have accomplished that with American agriculture? How have we done that? Well, I just believe our farmers and ranchers are second to none. And I know these men and women across this country that they've chosen that for their life and they just get more and more productive. They get more and more efficient. They just do a heck of a job.
"And certainly we invest some at the national level. But I think if consumers recognized that this investment allows them to be consumers of some of the, really, the best products in the world, the safest products in the world, and spend less of their disposable income on those products, then I think we're making the right case and we're taking the right steps to show that this really is a good investment, in my personal opinion.
"So that would be my swing at it today. I could go on and on, but I feel very strongly that our farmers and ranchers across this country just do a great job."
MODERATOR: "Next question comes from Bob Hoff of Northwest Ag Information Network. And Ron Hayes should be standing by.
"Bob, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Thank you very much, Larry, Mr. Secretary. "I have a question regarding the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust. The National Wheat Grower Groups recently asked that the wheat stocks of there be replenished. Wheat industry would also like to see more spending on food aid funding. There's been some concern in the wheat industry that the Administration wants to monetize that trust, just hold money, no grain.
"Your thoughts on that trust and what the future of it is?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "I am familiar with what you're talking about, and I'm going to ask you for an opportunity to get more in-depth briefing in terms of your specific questions. I can offer a thought on your last part though in terms of money versus food.
"You're going to see me be an advocate for the food part of this because I think that's what makes sense for agriculture. And if it's a money program it becomes another aid program. But again, my thought would be: give me a chance to kind of delve into the issues you've raised and I'll be better equipped to answer that question in the weeks ahead."
MODERATOR: "Our next question is from Ron Hayes of Clear Channel Ag Network in Oklahoma City. Art Hovey will be standing by.
"Ron, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Thank you, Larry. And good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. Congratulations on your new role, and it's a very, very important position for agriculture.
"You made a comment, earlier in your response, regarding the importance of reopening the Japanese market, that you don't want any slippage in the progress with the Japanese and negotiations with this transition.
"What about the flipside though? What advantages might you be able to bring to the table to maybe bring this negotiation successfully to a close? In other words, your predecessor talked about some frustrations with the Farm Ministry and the officials there. What can we do now? What ideas do you have about maybe breaking this log jam?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Well, I have one of the best envoys in all the world, I believe, really the best envoy in all the world supporting me, and that's the President of the United States. Back on September 21 of last year he met with the Prime Minister, and they talked extensively about this issue. And with that kind of support, I really do think we have a great opportunity to move the agenda.
"Second thing I would offer is, I do have personal experience. I have been to Japan on a number of occasions. I've had a great working relationship with our friends in Japan. We agree on one thing -- we've had some great trade through the years. This is something that I believe they're anxious to get behind them and get resolved. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure that we can look back here and say that it has been resolved.
"The other thing I would offer is a lot of groundwork has been laid. Over the last year- plus, the USDA and its team of scientists and scientists from all over the country have worked with our friends in Japan to make sure that their questions were answered on safety issues and the firewalls that are in place and all of those things.
"So a lot of work has been done before I arrived, and it's upon that base that we can really build our effort here.
"Again, the important thing is that I don't want to send any kind of message that would indicate that because I showed up here we can take some steps back. We don't want to take any steps back. Every step needs to be forward to open that border and do everything we can to have Japan open up its border to our beef.
"The other thing I would offer, I believe once that happens, that gosh you'll just see a tremendous response across the world. And so this is a very important priority. I think if we can get this hurdle overcome then a lot of things will fall into place for us."
MODERATOR: "Our next question comes from Art Hovey from Lincoln Journal. And Stewart Doan should be standing by.
"Art, go ahead, please."
QUESTION: "Mr. Secretary, my congratulations also. I'm still trying to get used to not calling you Governor.
"Something that looms in the news right now is whether or not we can have effective enforcement on the meat protein ban without much more extensive BSE testing. Of course the cow in Canada, the most recent one, was born after the Canadian ban.
"Do you believe that we need to have much more BSE testing than we have now?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Well, we're aggressively testing, and we've had rather remarkable results. So, Art, I would offer that. But here's the other thing I would offer. Needless to say the situation with the most recent animal in Canada has not gone unnoticed across the country or by the USDA. This afternoon a team will leave for Canada. We appreciate the cooperation of Canadian officials on this issue. We're going to delve into it. I've asked for personal reports in terms of what they're finding out, and I expect to receive those in the not too distant future.
"So needless to say, we're jumping on this. And we're going to do everything we can to figure out what that's about. This animal was post-feed ban. So needless to say that's on everybody's radar screen. It definitely is on mine."
MODERATOR: "And our final question today comes from Stewart Doan with Clear Channel Ag Network in Little Rock, Arkansas. Stewart?"
QUESTION: "Thank you, Larry. "Good morning, Mr. Secretary, and congratulations. "I'm wondering, sir, what changes if any in your subcabinet and USDA's senior staff farmers and ranchers should anticipate, and what timetable you have for announcing those changes that you feel are necessary?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "It will be a week to two weeks, maybe even extend beyond that. I'm not prepared to make any announcements about who or where or when today. But definitely it's something that I've been thinking about, and now that I've been confirmed and sworn in I can focus on.
"So about the best I can offer today is, number one to tell you, you come from a beautiful state. I've been to Little Rock many times. Give my regards to your governor and his wife. And then the second thing I will tell you is, stay tuned. That's probably a new story, but not quite today."
MODERATOR: "Thank you, reporters, for your questions.
"Mr. Secretary, any closing thoughts you'd like to make?"
SEC. JOHANNS: "Well, I'll just return to where I started. I appreciate the opportunity to work with the employees here at the USDA to do everything I can to advance the cause not only of agriculture but the very extensive portfolio we have here in this Department.
"I was here early because I'm excited about this job, and I suspect that I'll be here early every day that I'm Secretary of Agriculture. And the other thing I might offer, I look forward to getting across the country. I'm going to need a little bit of time just to get my feet on the ground here.
"But I just want to assure people that I'll be the kind of Secretary of Agriculture that, as Senator Roberts said, will sit on the wagon tongue and visit with producers. I'm anxious to do that."
MODERATOR: "Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns.
"I'm Larry Quinn bidding you a good afternoon from Washington."