Agricultural trade is a success story; we have a $22.5 billion surplus, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “It is a vital tool, not only to restore the American economy, but also to revitalize rural communities,” he says. Speaking at the 2010 Commodity Classic meeting in Anaheim, CA, he adds, “It is extremely important for the entire country to understand why trade agreements are important, why the renewable fuel industry is important and why farm programs are important.
“It’s no longer an issue of just knocking down trade barriers. It depends on which country we’re talking about and where they lie on the market continuum.
“One size doesn’t fit all in developing agricultural trade with various countries,” Vilsack says. He divides potential trade partners into categories reflecting their level of development and infrastructure, rate of economic growth, openness to biotechnology and maturity of market. For example, a mature market requires technical expertise to overcome resistance to issues like biotechnology  or sanitary issues “not aligned with science, so that we have a fair and open system,” he explains.
A mature, very competitive market such as Japan “calls for funding our cooperator program to help create confidence in the American brand. Add to that a refocus on biotechnology, using additional resources and advocacy to obtain an overall effort consistent with the president’s export initiative, which we think will break down barriers and build trade,” says Vilsack.
Opening doors to biotech will require “articulating more forcefully for the benefits of biotech,” he says. “Science and biotech are an answer to meeting the food and resource demands of a growing population.
“We need to build relationships with international organizations. For example, a biotech initiative with Canada and Mexico will promote a consistent strategy, along with scientific exchanges, farmer-to-farmer programs that encourage others to give this technology a try and see the benefits for themselves.”
Building exports was just one reference to Vilsack’s broader theme of rebuilding rural America. Other revitalization tools – broad-based support for biofuels  across many geographies and many feedstocks and broadband access in smaller communities – “are just a few of the tools that will not only build rural communities, but preserve the values of our country that are rooted in these communities,” Vilsack says.
He signaled today that the Conservation Reserve Program  is an important one that builds both soil resources and rural economies. Beyond its conservation benefits, he indicates that wildlife habitat and access to private lands for hunting and fishing are important auxiliary benefits that can revitalize rural America.
Vilsack also defends the USDA ’s name not being changed to the Department of Food, now that 70% of USDA’s budget lies in the form of food assistance. The same arguments that might support the name change also build a case for the USDA’s name in that its various activities stabilize markets through school lunches; build potential trading opportunities through disaster food aid; develop rural communities through biofuel development; and conserve water for farming through healthy forest preservation. Every single mission of USDA comes back to farmers, Vilsack says.
He also called for agriculture to build alliances with other constituencies in the face of the dwindling number of farm congressional seats in Congress and redistricting. Half of our rural counties lost population in the last census, and it’s assumed that the 1% of Americans farming will continue to shrink in number.
When asked about the delay in E-15 ruling by EPA  until the end of this summer, Vilsack says he wants to “get it right” in knowing which vehicles can use which blends, and then deploying appropriate technologies to “flip a switch” for various blends tailored to engines of various vintages at gas stations. “We’re heading in that direction,” he says.
Find out what else Sec. of Ag Vilsack had to say about America’s farmers in a video at http://deltafarmpress.com/video/vilsack-thank-you-to-farmers-0305/ .