USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is an almond aficionado, the chocolate-covered type.

Speaking at the Almond Industry Conference, Secretary Vilsack praised the virtues of the almond, and the $3.8 billion California almond industry.

“You produce a product that helps America be healthier,” Secretary Vilsack told the crowd of 2,400 almond growers, handlers, and other industry enthusiasts.

“The nutrition of the product – low calories and high nutritional values – helps promote greater health, energy, and productivity for young people in the U.S. and overseas.”

He congratulated the industry for doubling California almond exports in recent years.

“The record of export growth in the almond industry is nothing short of amazing,” the nation’s 30th Agriculture Secretary said. “It’s a multi-billion-dollar opportunity with tremendous productivity and capacity.”

California growers produce 99 percent of the U.S. commercial almond crop on about 760,000 acres.

Turning to U.S. agriculture overall, the Secretary discussed his views on the issues facing the agricultural sector. On the positive side, the former two-term Iowa governor said every $1 billion in U.S. agricultural exports supports 7,800 jobs.

“We expect U.S. (farm) exports to continue to grow,” Secretary Vilsack said. “We anticipate a record year in agricultural exports overall.”

The secretary commended recent passage of free-trade agreements with Korea, Columbia, and Panama. He said the pacts offer offers export growth potential for U.S. farm commodities, including almonds.

Vilsack called Russia’s recent acceptance into the World Trade Organization good news for U.S. agriculture. He hopes it will force Russia to become a more stable and secure trading partner with the U.S.

The agricultural leader said the U.S. will continue work to break down trade barriers with other countries.

“We will work to break down barriers that may be constructed by countries simply because they want to provide a little more difficulty in terms of American exports for a variety of reasons other than the product itself,” Vilsack explained.

The U.S. has successfully diffused about 1,500 trade barriers annually over the last several years.

The nation’s agricultural chief treaded softly on the immigration issue; acknowledging the importance of labor to the agricultural industry nationwide.

Vilsack said, “I know you (almond industry) are at the forefront of articulating and advocating for this country to embrace comprehensive immigration reform so we can have a steady and stable secure workforce for you.”

Vilsack also praised agriculture’s ongoing stewardship of the land and the industry’s participation with government programs to achieve conservation goals.

“The fact that you are working with NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) in a number of EQIP projects across California is a testimony to the concern you have about the environment and stewardship to protect the land and the water for tomorrow.”