Global food prices jumped 25 percent last year and set a record last month. Pressure is rising to cut costs throughout the federal bureaucracy. And worries abound over global competition with China and other emerging markets.
What's U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's assessment of those troubling scenarios? Things are much better than they seem.
Food prices in the United States will go up a modest 3 to 4 percent, he predicts, in part catching up for recent years of little increase or even a slight drop. His department hopes to appease deficit hawks with more cuts in farm subsidies. And as far as agriculture is concerned, the trade scenario looks downright rosy thanks in no small part to China.
Last year, the country exported $115 billion worth of agricultural goods, the best year ever, with Florida accounting for $3.9 billion of the total, up 8 percent from a year ago and up 49 percent over the past five years. This year, he predicts national exports will reach $135 billion.
"So we're increasing exports by about $20 billion. Every billion dollars of agriculture sales generates about 8,000 jobs in addition to improving farmers' income. … That's a lot of jobs," said Vilsack, who will be visiting Tampa Friday for a major agriculture trade show.
With the ports in Tampa and Miami handling more than $3 billion in agricultural goods in 2010, Agriculture Department officials say Florida is a critical leverage point for the Southeast's agricultural trade.
Top Florida agricultural exports are fruits and vegetables. But the laundry list Florida's exported commodities ranges from cotton, rubber and tobacco to cheese, wine and tea.
"One out of every 12 jobs is agriculture-related," Vilsack said. "Certainly, it's an important component of Florida's economy."
In advance of his trip, Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and briefly a 2008 presidential candidate, spoke with the St. Petersburg Times on a range of topics.
For one, Vilsack said the chilled relationship between the Obama administration and new Florida Gov. Rick Scott hasn't affected agriculture relations.
The governor may be rejecting federal funds for high-speed rail and certain health care and unemployment dollars, but Scott is still accepting federal aid for research into citrus greening disease (about $25 million a year) and to help counties affected by adverse weather. Direct farm loans, business industrial loans and funding for water projects continue to flow into Florida as well.
"To my knowledge, the governor hasn't asked for any of them to be rescinded or stopped," Vilsack said.
Among other thoughts:
• Food prices — Farmers are expected to plant more acres of corn this year as well as put more seed per acre to capitalize on stronger prices. Assuming an average weather year — which he hesitates to assume — there should be higher yields to keep prices in check.
• Biofuels — "It's not a well-understood issue," he says. Many assume biofuels are necessarily tied to corn. But increasingly his department is working with producers in Florida and other states on bio-refineries that can create alternative fuel from woody biomass, crop residue and even landfill waste.