Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently held a lengthy press conference with reporters to cover a wide variety of topics important to the industry. One of the more immediate concerns is getting southern shipping ports up and running after Hurricane Ida damaged the infrastructure along the southern Mississippi River.
“Assessing the damage and we obviously have staff on-site, and I haven’t had a chance fully and completely to access the damaged area, so we don’t have all the details and all the information we need to be able to assess precisely what needs to be done. But the President has made a major disaster declaration for Louisiana, an emergency declaration for Mississippi, so that begins the process of opening up potential assistance in terms of disaster and loans. If the governor’s request more, or if our teams on the ground are able to document, there may be additional secretarial designations of specific counties that have been significantly impacted. That too will open up opportunities.”
He says USDA has several programs that can help people hit hard by Ida to get back on their feet. Vilsack says the damage left behind by the hurricane in areas stretching from Louisiana up to New England demonstrate the need to update America’s infrastructure.
“We’re making sure that the existing facilities that we have are functional, and that requires us to obviously focus on the immediate. And then there’s a longer-term necessity of investment in infrastructure, which is why Congress needs to complete its work on a bipartisan infrastructure and jobs bill, because that does contain significant resources to improve our roads and our highway systems, our inland waterway systems, our ports, our airports, as well as our rail system, all of which really will allow us to maintain a competitive advantage in exports. One of the advantages we have in pricing products is that we’re able to get the product to market more quickly because of the transportation system we’ve had. However, our competitors are beginning to invest significantly in their infrastructure. They’re catching up, so we must take the next step.”
Turning to trade, Vilsack spoke about the approaching end of the Phase One Trade Deal this year with China and how that will affect trade in 2022.
“I’ve had conversations with my counterpart in China, and I think at this point, the expectation is that we’re going to continue to see purchases. Why? Because I think it’s in both China and the United States best interest to continue to look for ways in which we can collaborate and cooperate in this trade sphere. Secondly, the fact is China needs us; they need the food that we can supply. So, I think there’s an economic and food imperative on their part, and I think it makes good sense for us to be able to maintain some degree of connection with China.”
He says America is engaging with other Southeast Asian countries about improving trade relationships and lowering barriers to increased trade. Speaking of trade, Vilsack was asked about the possibility of the U.S. rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, now known as the CPTPP. He talks about what needs to happen.
“Well, it has to pass Congress. It’s got to get through Congress: how does it get through Congress? Well, it has to have a majority of votes in Congress. Well, the reality is that there are folks on both the right and the left who have raised issues and concerns about trade in the theory and belief that somehow trade has disproportionately negatively impacted American workers or American businesses. So, I think first and foremost we have to build a strong foundation domestically, where people feel more confident in our economy. That’s why it’s so important for this reconciliation bill and this infrastructure bill to get passed, because that’s what creates the momentum, internally, domestically, to strengthen American families to make them feel a bit more secure, and to create the kind of infrastructure that will allow us to take full advantage of a 21st-century economy.”