“I come here today incredibly optimistic because I feel strongly about the products we market and produce,” said Tom Vilsack, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, when he addressed a packed luncheon crowd on Tuesday afternoon at Dairy Forum. He encouraged the leaders in the room to “collaborate, cooperate and communicate” because he believes speaking with a unified industry voice will have a significant impact on policymakers and bring positive outcomes for dairy.
Changing the way the industry talks about trade is one example. Vilsack said the industry message should be broader and more focused on the positive impact of trade on a variety of activities. Company leaders need to ensure that their employees understand the positive impact trade has on their jobs and lives, and consumers need to know that so much of what they like and rely on is a result of trade.
He made the same connection when talking about biotechnology and genetically modified products and ingredients. Consumers must know and understand that there’s a cost associated with their requests and decisions. Do they really want to pay more for the products they love? he asked.
Farm bill conversations should also take a different tack this year, he said. When considering the next bill, which he referred to as the “food, farms and jobs bill,” Vilsack said the conversation should begin with defining needs before considering the dollars needed to support them. That approach would eliminate competition among groups and agencies for a set number of dollars and concentrate on areas in need.
As the outgoing secretary of agriculture, Vilsack left a 24-page memo for Secretary-designate Sonny Perdue highlighting the importance of trade to agriculture and the positive impact agriculture has on job retention and growth across the country. He also spoke with him and reinforced that message.
Noting a few times that dairy needs to “punch above our weight,” Vilsack mentioned three areas of common interest to all stakeholders: access to markets, increased demand and strategies that will facilitate sales.
He focused attention on Mexico, which currently is the largest export market for U.S. dairy products. “We have responsibilities to maintain relationships with companies in Mexico to let them know we’ll still be doing business with them,” he said.
On geographical indications, Vilsack said the country needs to be “very vigilant” and keep references to common names in U.S. bilateral trade agreements. He said, “We need to keep an eye on our EU friends with GIs.”
Regarding immigration, he expressed hope that the new administration’s take on national security would be coupled with comprehensive immigration reform. Speaking of national security, Vilsack also said the country has taken too narrow a view, adding if the administration is changing the composition of the National Security Council, it should have an agriculture representative serving on it, too.
He concluded his remarks saying, “Despite the big challenges, I think our best days are ahead.”