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Political Mercury

September 6, 2012
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Tom Vilsack: Obama deserves credit for a stronger rural economy

By Douglas Burns

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa, spoke recently with Cityview about agricultural issues during a campaign event outside of Jefferson for his wife, Christie, who is seeking the 4th District Congressional seat in a race with U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron. Photo by Douglas Burns

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack says President Barack Obama’s commitment to chasing down and cultivating new and stronger foreign markets for American grain and livestock is paying dividends in Iowa and elsewhere in farm country.

“When the president came into office he recognized the way to keep the economy going was to increase exports, so he challenged everyone to double exports within five years,” Vilsack said. “We took that challenge to heart at USDA.”

Vilsack, a former two-term Democratic governor of Iowa, spoke recently with Cityview about agricultural issues during a campaign event outside of Jefferson for his wife, Christie, who is seeking the 4th District Congressional seat in a race with U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron.

Since 2009, farmers and ranchers are set to deliver three of the four highest levels of U.S. agricultural exports in the nation’s history, according to USDA. In fiscal year 2012, the latest forecast sees $134.5 billion in U.S. farm exports, the second-highest level ever and $3.5 billion greater than the previous forecast, USDA reports.

During his tenure at USDA Vilsack helped identify 20 countries with greatest potential for advanced export opportunities where U.S. goods are concerned.

“We really pushed it hard,” Vilsack said. “We had more trade shows, more reverse trade shows, more exchanges. And the numbers would tell you that the last three years have been the best three years collectively in ag exports — both in terms of volume and in value — that we’ve ever had. Even this year, as tough as this year is going to be, we’re still going to have a very strong year, maybe the second-best year we’ve ever had.”

Vilsack said the United States has seen extraordinary trade increases with China.

“Vietnam has emerged as a significant trading partner,” Vilsack said. “The Korean free trade agreement has made it a whole lot more popular for American ag products.”

South Africa and Indonesia are serving up great opportunities, he said.

“We continue to see increased activity in Canada and Mexico,” Vilsack said.

He said Japan is another key partner.

Vilsack said every billion dollars in agricultural sales supports 78 jobs in the United States.

“It does indeed make a difference in terms of unemployment,” Vilsack said. “And I think the future for us is bright.”

The middle classes emerging in Asia are interested in the proteins that can be created in the United States. This bodes well for farmers in Iowa, Vilsack said.

“It’s a long-term positive view in my opinion,” Vilsack said.

In July, Lyon County, in the far northwest part of the state, posted a 2.7 percent unemployment rate — Mills a 3.2 percent rate, Shelby 3.4 percent and much of conservative western Iowa was well under 4 percent unemployment. According to Iowa Workforce Development, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate increased slightly in July to 5.3. Meanwhile, the U.S. unemployment rate for July stood at 8.3 percent.

If the president is going to be blamed for the national unemployment numbers, does he deserve some credit for the more favorable rates in many of Iowa’s counties?

“I think he deserves credit for a stronger rural economy than we’ve seen in a long time,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack said USDA also has worked aggressively under Obama to expand local and regional food systems.

“Direct-to-consumer sales now is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Vilsack said.

The president’s support of the renewable-fuels industry lifts the economy as well, the agriculture secretary said.

“We spend, the most conservative study I’ve seen, 25 cents less per gallon because we have a renewable-fuel industry,” Vilsack said. “I’ve seen studies linking it as high as 80 cents to $1.37 a gallon less at the pump today.” CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.



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