It didn't take Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman long to differentiate the Bush administration's agricultural policies from that of its predecessor.
Where the Clinton administration appeared to seek a larger government role in helping farmers weather the agricultural crisis, Veneman said producers should seek new alliances to help them fight their way back to prosperity.
In her first public address at the annual USDA Outlook Conference in Arlington, Va., the new secretary said the Bush administration will work with Congress to provide a safety net for farmers that moves toward a more market-based economy.
“Today, the interests of the various links of the food chain are more closely aligned than ever,” she said. “Retailers cannot survive without processors and farmers; farmers cannot survive without processors and retailers. In this current environment, government cannot force solutions.”
USDA must and will carry out its traditional duties, such as “vigorously protecting farmers and the public against unfair and uncompetitive markets, insuring food safety, pest and disease prevention and eradication and continuing to provide an adequate safety net for producers.
“But, as we look to the next farm bill, we should consider new approaches to policy development,” said Veneman.
Traditionally, interested parties have independently presented their views before Congress, often as competing interests, she noted. “House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest has taken an important step by establishing a framework that encourages commodity groups to work together to develop farm bill proposals.
“The next step could be a process that brings together commodity groups, general farm groups, processors, wholesalers, retailers and consumers to find the best approach for all to succeed in the new consumer-driven food system.”
She cited the new collectively developed approach to educate consumers about the benefits of biotechnology as an example of the new type of approach.
“In the United States, farm groups, seed manufacturers, processors and retailers have come together to address the challenges that biotech has confronted, including consumer acceptance and access to overseas markets.”
Veneman's speech followed a panel discussion on the next farm bill in which one participant said Congress must find some way to “end the cycle” of farm payments that lead to more crop production and lower prices.
“That is the quandary as we begin this process of writing a new farm bill,” said J.B. Penn, senior vice president with Memphis-based Sparks Companies. “How do we end this cycle? How do we dismount this tiger?”
Rather than focusing on ways to “mend” the safety net as former Secretary Dan Glickman might have done, Veneman said farmers must seize the challenge created by the evolution of the new food system.
“On the one hand, consolidated retailers want large volumes of branded, high-quality products,” she said. “Processors are expanding operations, acquiring new product lines, or merging with others to meet the retailers' needs.”
While those forces at play in the meatpacking and grain industries have left some farmers feeling vulnerable, she said, others are finding ways to participate in the changing market for food products, while improving their bottom lines.
She cited several examples of farmers forming new cooperatives or other business alliances to create the scale needed to survive in the new economy, including the Tennessee Pork Producers, which markets pork to Hispanic markets in the middle Tennessee area.
Although she served as secretary of the California Department and Food and Agriculture in her most recent position, Veneman's earlier roots with USDA have begun to show through more strongly in recent days.
She began her first Washington stint with USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service in 1986 and rose to become deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs from 1989 to 1991. She served as deputy secretary of agriculture in the first Bush administration from 1991 to 1993.
In her comments at the Outlook Conference, she said the new administration will “pursue an aggressive trade policy that includes a new trade negotiating authority, a new trade round in the WTO and completion of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.”