USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Ag Services Jim Miller said the USDA is focused on building a new framework for rural America and enhancing opportunities for U.S. farms and ranches.

“It is a challenging time for all of agriculture,” Miller said as keynote speaker, via telephone hookup, for the American Cotton Producers/Cotton Foundation Summer Meeting recently in Lubbock.

“But we’ve always faced challenging times,” he said, “and we will work through them.”

He said a key goal for USDA is to insure “the next generation has more opportunities in agriculture and more options.”

He said achieving that goal depends on five key factors, including:

  • Commitment to new ways to strengthen farm income with agricultural research.
  • Expansion and diversification in rural communities to create opportunities for small businesses, even those not directly involved in agriculture.
  • Create jobs, many of which will be green jobs that are not easily exported. Biofuel production will play a larger role in rural America.
  • Develop and retain markets abroad, and
  • Recognize that agriculture always faces unique situations with volatile markets and Mother Nature and consequently needs a safety net.

He said the Obama Administration is taking a “farmer friendly approach,” to complete implementation of the 2008 farm law, which included new programs that “are more complex and difficult to implement.”

He singled out the ACRE program as an example. “ACRE requires both state and local revenue triggers,” he said. It also requires a multi-year agreement, through the end of the current farm law. Only 8 percent of eligible farmers enrolled in ACRE in 2010, Miller said. “For southern crops, the percentage was very small, and less than expected across the board.”

He said the new permanent disaster program, SURE, is also complex as a whole farm revenue program.

He said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is encouraging full participation in the 2010 Conservation Reserve Program, which also has seen changes with reduced maximum allowed acreage. “He is committed to keep enrolled acreage near the 32 million-acre cap,” Miller said.

He commented on the Standard Reinsurance Agreement and said the goal is to “secure long-term viability and a reasonable level of income and return to agents as well as a sound investment by taxpayers,” and affordable insurance for producers.

He said cotton outlook has changed significantly since 2009, which he called “a strange year with high acreage abandonment and lower yields. We had disaster areas across the belt.”

But poor U.S. production, in addition to diminishing worldwide stocks, pushed prices to levels “better than in recent years.” Price outlook convinced U.S. producers to increase acreage by 19 percent, he said, and now “growing conditions are better than in recent years and abandonment much less. Yields look promising and prices remain higher. The economy is improving.”

He said a key for USDA is to make certain cotton farmers have markets abroad since “80 percent of your cotton is exported.”

He said U.S. agriculture has “a bright future. We expect to double exports within five years and that will create 2 million jobs. We also are trying to resolve both tariff and non-tariff trade barriers, one country at a time.”

He said agriculture is a bright spot for U.S. trade with an “$8 billion increase in exports this year.”

He said the Brazil WTO case remains a challenge to cotton and other industries. A recent agreement that halts Brazil’s counter measures for the time being is “not a permanent solution,” Miller said.

“We have a number of steps and formulas to consider to reach a conclusion on the dispute. Challenges remain.”

He said addressing the cotton program in the 2012 farm bill also presents challenges, especially in light of the Brazil WTO case. “We will work with industry leaders to find solutions,” Miller said, “and still provide a sound safety net.”

He said budget will be the “dominant factor in the 2012 farm bill.”

A key will be looking at programs and identifying those that overlap with duplicate payments. “We also see gaps in some programs. But we remain committed to production agriculture.”