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Farming a way forward to economic recovery

As the U.S. and global economies work to recover from the worst recession in decades, American agriculture is helping to lead our nation's recovery by shattering trade records, creating jobs here at home and ensuring affordable food for families.

Today I am in Tampa to talk with American farmers. Thanks to one of the most productive eras in history for U.S. agriculture and a reputation for quality products, farmers and ranchers are racking up record sales for U.S. farm goods abroad and looking forward to some of the best net incomes in decades. U.S. agricultural exports for 2011 are on course to shatter previous records — and enjoy a record $47.5 billion surplus. In the past five years, Florida farm exports grew $1 billion, reaching $2.9 billion in 2010 and growing.

What does this good news mean for those not engaged in farming or ranching? For one, it means cheaper grocery bills for U.S. families.

American families spend less at the grocery store compared with consumers in much of the rest of the world, and that allows our families to spend more of their income on a home, save for retirement or fund their child's college education. Even with small increases in food prices this year, we'll keep more money in our pockets than our competitors because our country produces 86 percent of the food Americans buy and consume. You can thank a farmer or rancher for that peace of mind.

Agriculture also means jobs for Americans: one in 12 nationwide and one in 23 here in Florida. And exports create additional jobs: Every $1 billion in farm exports supports roughly 8,000 jobs in the United States in agriculture and related industries such as transportation, storage and food packaging. This year, exports will support more than a million such jobs.

Florida, which ranks 17th in state-produced farm exports, wins on two fronts: in jobs directly attributed to farming and ranching, as well as jobs related to exports. The farm commodities passing through ports in Tampa and Miami on their way to Latin America support paychecks for thousands of Floridians.

I know Florida agriculture has a big part to play in the story of our nation's economic resurgence and long-term strength. Last summer, I traveled to Plant City, where I toured Castillo Farms. Hilda and Fidel Castillo immigrated to the Plant City area from Mexico a few decades ago to pick fruits and vegetables on area farms.

Over time, they were able to lease an acre or two of land to farm for themselves, scrimping and saving and working with local USDA employees for advice and support. Today, the Castillos produce cantaloupe, strawberries and peppers on 40 acres of their own land and employ a few dozen workers. I left their farm proud to lead a department that promotes policies that help the Castillos' story to be repeated — and celebrated — around the nation.

In the years ahead, USDA will work harder than ever to give businesses such as the Castillos' even greater opportunities to grow. At President Obama's direction, USDA has focused on building a robust future for the U.S. economy and opening new markets at home and abroad for agricultural producers. We want famers such as the Castillos to know that opportunities exist beyond our shores to grow their businesses. Today, only 1 percent of U.S. companies export, and yet 95 percent of the world's consumers live outside the borders of the United States. We can do better to reach those consumers.

Smart trade deals that increase exports, support job creation, and bolster the American economy can help build for our future. Right now, the Obama administration is working to move forward on proposed U.S. trade agreements with South Korea, then Panama and Colombia — nations with 100 million consumers. Successful approval would bring billions of dollars to U.S. agriculture and immediate benefits to Florida by eliminating tariffs on a range of Florida agricultural products.

Since 2009, when I became Agriculture Secretary, USDA officials have negotiated hard to open markets for U.S. farm goods. Thanks to the president's National Export Initiative, which challenged U.S. businesses to double all exports by the end of 2014, USDA is now reaching out to producers and agribusinesses, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, with information about how to tackle the export market.

Whether it means directly connecting U.S. companies and trade groups with foreign customers or advocating more forcefully for their interests with other governments, we are working to expand economic opportunities for Americans.

For decades, U.S. agriculture has helped to feed a hungry world, added jobs to our economy and reduced our trade deficit. As we embark on building a stronger America for the future, don't be surprised that American farmers and ranchers are helping to lead the way.

Thomas J. Vilsack is the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

Farming a way forward to economic recovery 03/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2011 1:52pm]
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