By MITCH LIES
ATLANTA -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a speech to American Farm Bureau members Jan. 10 vowed to work on providing greater stability and profitability for dairymen and to press to open foreign markets for U.S. agriculture.
"I think it is important and necessary for us to see if we can figure out a way in which we can provide greater profitability and more stability in (the dairy) industry," Vilsack told the Farm Bureau's annual convention.
In just the last 10 years, the number of dairy producers in the U.S. has dropped from 110,000 to 65,000, he said.
After the recent decline in dairy prices, Vilsack said he formed a dairy task force to develop recommendations for a new dairy pricing policy.
The task force is due to release its recommendations in the next month or so, he said.
"We will be working with both House and Senate agricultural committees to ensure that we actually do take action," he said.
In addressing foreign trade, Vilsack said he and Jim Miller, undersecretary of farm services and foreign agriculture, have traveled to Asian and Latin American markets in recent months to try to lower barriers on beef and other agricultural exports.
"Just today, Jim Miller ... is in China to try to reduce the barriers that have existed for far too long in our beef trade," he said.
Also in the speech, Vilsack applauded Congress for passing tax legislation in December that could dramatically improve farm profits in 2011.
America's largest farms in 2011 "will have significant capital investment," Vilsack said.
"That is why it was so important to pass tax legislation in this last session of Congress -- not only to reduce payroll taxes for a year, but more importantly to allow business expensing at 100 percent this year, so that folks can feel free to go out and purchase that implement that they have been wanting to purchase for some time, but have been concerned about their ability to afford it.
"And that is why it was important to have estate tax relief in this bill that assured all the members of this audience and your family members that you aren't going to have to worry about whether the farm is going to have to be sold or split up," he said.
Congress in December established the estate tax exemption at $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a couple for the next two years.
Vilsack also said USDA is working to minimize interference with a farmer's freedom to grow biotech, organic or identity-preserved crops.
"We're trying to figure out -- as difficult as it might be -- is there a way that we can ensure that we have less interference with the capacity of folks to do what they want to do on their own land?" he said.
"We have today roughly 23 pending deregulation efforts within USDA," he said. "These regulations take five to six years to get through and cost millions of dollars.
"I've tasked our team to figure out a way to reduce the amount of time it takes to review and come to a decision ... so that every farmer, every rancher, every grower has the capacity to do on their land what they wish to do," he said.
"If you want to grow (genetically engineered) crops, you ought to be able to do that," he said. "If you want to grow identity-preserved ... you ought to be able to do that. If you want to be an organic farmer, you ought to be able to do that."