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.”

Losing political clout

Vilsack delved into the farm bill debate. His remarks were delivered prior to the recent short-term extension of the 2008 farm law. Vilsack placed blame on the back of Congress for not passing a four-year law.

“The sad reality is Congress has failed to pass a (four year) farm bill,” legislation Vilsack referred to as the “Food, Farm, and Jobs bill.”

Without a long-term measure, he said funding for government-financed agricultural trade programs is in jeopardy, including the USDA’s market access program.

Vilsack’s message to Congress was plain and simple, “Pass this legislation, and restore the authorization and funding for these trade programs ... It’s not an impossible task.”

Vilsack said the lack of a long-term farm law opens the door to potential trading problems for U.S. agriculture. He said the U.S. can cede competitive trading efforts to foreign competitors. If market share is lost, it can be very difficult and very expensive to get it back.

Why is Congress unwilling to pass long-term farm legislation? The secretary suggested that American agriculture could be losing its political clout. When the USDA was formed 150 years, nearly 90 percent of the nation was connected to rural America. The number has shrunk to 16 percent.

“The other 84 percent of Americans may not fully appreciate the contributions of rural America,” said Vilsack. “They may understand that agriculture is the source of food but they probably don’t understand it’s also the source of most of the drinking water they enjoy.”

Many Americans, he said, are likely unaware that most of the energy used in this country is developed in rural communities. A portion of the fuel used in their cars likely came from rural areas. The fuel price may cost less than imported crude.

“Our message cumulatively in agriculture has been more of a reactive message rather than a proactive message,” Vilsack said. “We need to convey a strong pro-active message about the importance of agriculture and rural America to the rest of the country.”

The secretary stressed the need to get more young people involved in agriculture. He listed four cornerstones the administration has in place to bring more youth into the business of agriculture.

The cornerstones include:

  • Involvement in production agriculture and exports.
  • The capacity to expand local and regional food systems.
  • Conservation as a link to outdoor recreation to encourage more people to enjoy rural areas.
  • Bio-based economy.

The bio-based economy program, Vilsack explained, would add more value to current products on the market. A bio-based economy would help shift the country away from foreign oil through bio-refining and bio-processing tree and hog wastes, plants, and almond shells to produce chemicals, fabrics, fibers, and polymers.

“It is an exciting positive future. We need to promote it,” Vilsack concluded.