Vilsack Talks Trade In New Role

Mar 24, 2017  | 4 min  | Ep4231

Tom Vilsack was one the longest serving Agriculture secretaries in more than 50 years. As USDA chief, his job was akin to parenting where conventional wisdom says you don’t pick favorites among your children. But now life in the private sector has the former secretary discussing one commodity more than others. Earlier this week I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Vilsack. You can watch the entire interview on our website or our new YouTube channel. We started off talking trade and specifically his thoughts on NAFTA. Our conversation is our Cover Story.

Tom Vilsack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture/U.S. Dairy Export Council: “We in the dairy industry felt that it was important and necessary to send a strong message to our Mexican producers and processors in terms of the dairy industry in Mexico, that we are keenly aware of the anxiety and concern that they have about their relationship with the United States and we wanted to ensure them that this relationship was important. So our goal was to reassure the Mexicans that we believe in this relationship, we believe in NAFTA. NAFTA has worked for agriculture in Mexico and we wanted to preserve what is best about NAFTA and strengthen what is working as well. And we tried to reassure folks that right now because there are not the people in place to provide the assistance and help to the president to make decisions.  And it's also the importance of agriculture in these trade discussions.”

Mike Pearson, Market to Market:”Now one of the things President Trump has said repeatedly, after backing out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, he said ‘America could achieve a better deal by forming bilateral trade agreements.’  What, in your mind, is the probability of getting some of these bilateral agreements accomplished with those partners in Southeast Asia?”

Tom Vilsack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture/U.S. Dairy Export Council: “When we enter into bilateral agreements, essentially TPP isn't the ceiling it's the floor and what we can add on top of it that creates complexity. The other thing that is a challenge in bilateral agreements, we are dealing with coutnries where agriculture is their number one or number two intersetr and issue. It may not be number one or number tow or number three or number four on our list.  Often times you're seeing ag essesntially negotiated in the context of getting something for steel or getting something from autos. So it's complex.

At the same time that's happening, or we're trying to make that happen, without people in place, again, the rest of the world has not stopped. The EU is in the process of trying to negotiate. China is coming in and basically saying to these Asian nations, 'Hey, you know what, the U.S. can't be counted on. How 'bout you come with us and we form an All Asia trade agreement?'”

Mike Pearson, Market to Market: “You were the only Obama appointee, upon leaving office, to actually endorse the Trump appointee, Governor Sonny Perdue. As we move into 2018, we will be tackling another Farm Bill and the Margin Protection Program in dairy is one of those things that appears to be something we might try to make changes to. What have you heard about potential changes that an issue you are still keeping an eye on?”

Tom Vilsack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture/U.S. Dairy Export Council: “Well, because of the way the way the U.S. Dairy Export Council is funded, with check-off dollars, with USDA resources from the foreign ag service and membership dues, I have to be careful about opining policy. But, I would say this, the discussion of the Farm Bill will clearly involve the Margin Protection Program. I think people throughout the country are not convinced it has done everything it needs to do and it's not as useful as people thought it might be and not as many producers are participating as there need to be, so I'm sure policy makers will be looking at improvements. However, those improvements will be costly. But you don't have that conversation if the first thing you say, as is often the case here in Washington, we have to cut 'x' number of dollars. What that does is begin the conversation of, 'okay, I've gotta protect what I have and I don't care what you need, or what we need, I gotta protect my piece of the pie.' That pits every commodity group one another. Commits commodity groups against nutrition, nutrition against forestry, forestry against trade, trade against conservation; it's a mess. It makes it much more difficult to get a Farm Bill through. So to me, it's important for people who support Farm Bill programs. first of all to stop calling it just a Farm Bill because it's more than that, it's a jobs bill, it's a trade bill, it's a conservation bill, it's a nutrition bill. It's a lot of things that are important to every single American. But we need to have a much better and different conversation starting the process. And hopefully we get a better product as a result of starting the conversation properly.”

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