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USDA Officials Past & Present Predict Agriculture's Future

posted on February 24, 2012

Hello, I'm Mark Pearson.   An exasperated Harry S. Truman once cried, "Give me a one-handed economist! All my economists say, 'On the one hand? And on the other...'   In the years since Truman, things have gotten a bit more complicated as America competes in a complex global economy.  This week -- 11 presidents later -- there weren't enough hands to count all the seemingly conflicting data...

On the one hand, the Dow Jones Industrials and the S&P 500 both traded this week at their highest levels since 2008.  On the other hand, oil prices rose 6 percent in the past week alone and are up more than 10 percent since the beginning of February.   

On yet another appendage, let's say a foot, the National Association of Realtors reports sales of previously owned homes rose in January to their highest level since May of 2010.  But on the other foot, retail gasoline prices tallied their 17th consecutive day of increases Friday as the national average for a gallon of unleaded soared to $3.65 -- a record high for this time of year. 

Lest we need more appendages to adequately judge economic vitality, we'll stop at four.  But other factors like the debt debacle in Europe; domestic deficits and stubbornly high unemployment ALL pose threats to economic expansion. 

The rural economy is not without challenges of its own, of course, but inside the Beltway this week USDA's chief economist offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for American agriculture.  

USDA Officials Past & Present Predict Agriculture's Future

Looking back at a healthy farm economy in 2011, USDA’s top number-cruncher set a positive tone during the government agency’s annual Agriculture Outlook Forum.

Joseph Glauber, USDA Chief Economist: “We saw record prices for many commodities, record agricultural exports and record farm income.  Not surprising, record prices have prompted record production for many commodities and as we saw over the last half of 2011, prices for grains, oilseeds and cotton have come down, reflecting strong production levels.”

Glauber expects record figures for crop prices and net farm income to dip in 2012.  According to USDA’s chief economist, a lower dollar will keep overallU.S.exports competitive, BUT he predicted farm exports will drop slightly in the coming year.  DespiteChina’s booming economy and its newly-minted status as the number one destination for exports, Glauber expects shipments to the Asian power will decline by 15 percent in 2012. 

Weather figures from across the country – especially dry conditions in the south - also caused moderate concern for USDA’s data-driven pointman.

Joseph Glauber, USDA Chief Economist: “It is still premature to conclude much concerning yield prospects for 2012 crops and much can happen between now and planting time.  Nonetheless, weather will be a key concern this year, particularly in Texas.”

 Speaking to 2000 attendees at the USDA’s annual Ag Outlook Conference, Secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack projected a positive future for America’s farmers and ranchers.

But Vilsack also reached back through USDA’s long history for public guidance and rural policy expertise.  The USDA chief moderated a panel of former agriculture secretaries dating back to the Reagan Administration – each with their own concerns about the future of agriculture.

John Block, President Ronald Reagan’s first USDA Secretary, pinpointed biotech critics as chief obstructionists to feeding a growing global population. 

John Block, USDA 1981-1986: “They just try to scare people.  I think that is a risk. You have to rely on good science….we can’t sustain the world population without technology.”

Dan Glickman, President Bill Clinton’s longtime Ag Secretary, addressed growing concern that public-sector initiatives to feed a worldwide population could run counter to budgetary realities in Washington.

Dan Glickman, USDA 1995-2001: “When you look at the challenges of food safety, feeding the hungry world, we’re going to have to double food production – pests, climate challenges, water shortages, lack of arable land, and when you look at the world in 2030 do we have the capability of recreating the Green Revolution?  Are taxpayers willing to support and fund these things because we’re going to have to invest in the long-term future of this business?”

Glickman’s budgetary concerns were echoed across the political aisle by Republican USDA appointees Ann Veneman and Mike Johanns – now a Senator from Nebraska.  The Obama Administration’s released figures this past week requesting a USDA budget of $154.7 billion – a fraction of the $3.8 trillion request. 

During the conference this week, Johanns suggested USDA’s budget pales in comparison to future expenses in Washington ranging from Medicare and Medicaid to Defense and federal payments on the U.S. debt.

Tags: agriculture news