Mike Johanns says U.S. consumers are getting a bargain on farm programs — a case he'll try to make as he begins to travel the country as the nation's 28th secretary of agriculture.
Speaking at his first new conference since being sworn in as secretary, Johanns said his years as an attorney and politician in Nebraska after growing up on an Iowa dairy farm have given him the opportunity to see things from the consumers' point of view.
“This past weekend my wife Stephanie and I walked into a couple of grocery stores in this part of the world,” said Johanns, whose first official day on the job was Jan. 24. “We were able to walk down aisles fully stocked with affordable foods, all kinds of foods, a tremendous array of foods, entirely safe.
“And I will also share with you that as an American consumer I spend less of my disposable income on feeding myself and my wife and my family than just about any other place in the world.”
His answer was a response to a reporter's question about whether he would use the post of agriculture secretary as a “bully pulpit” for spreading the message that U.S. taxpayer spending on farm programs is much less than many think. The questioner said the issue is taking on added importance because of talk about cuts in ag spending.
Johanns noted that the Agriculture Departments spends far more on nutrition programs (about 55 percent of the USDA budget) than for ag programs and that agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service also receive a larger share.
“Certainly, we invest some at the national level,” he said. “But I think if we can help consumers recognize that this investment allows them to be consumers of some of the best and safest products in the world — and to spend less of their disposable income doing it — then I think we're making the right case to show that this is a good investment.”
Johanns said he believes American agriculture has a remarkable story to tell and that he plans to do that as he begins to “get out in the country.
“I believe our farmers and ranchers are second to none,” he said. “The men and women across this country who have chosen that for their life just get more and more productive and more and more efficient.”
The new secretary said he will use the personal relations he has developed on numerous trade missions to Japan while he was Nebraska's governor to help reopen that country to U.S. exports of beef.
“As we have worked with countries on the science-based approach to testing, country after country has reopened their borders to U.S. beef,” he said. “Now we're really anxious to sign an agreement with Japan, and I have every reason to believe we can do that.”
Meeting with USDA's Washington-based employees before the press conference, Johanns said his appointment as secretary of agriculture was the realization of a life-long dream.
“I grew up on a dairy farm in Mitchell County, Iowa, which is in north-central Iowa, he said. “I've always had a passion for agriculture. So when the president nominated me it truly was a dream come true.”
He said that adding value to U.S. farm commodities will be one of his top priorities.
“Value-added agriculture, I believe, is a very important part of our future,” he noted. “It manifested itself in my role as governor of Nebraska with a very, very large investment in our state in ethanol. That whole biofuels area, I just believe, is just a tremendous opportunity for growth.
“I can spout statistics like, in our state, about one in every 5 or 6 bushels of corn is processed into ethanol. So value-added agriculture of all forms is important.”
On other issues, the secretary said he:
Supports the administration's position favoring voluntary country-of-origin labeling.
Is a strong believer in conservation, but that the Conservation Security Program created by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, must be operated within the budget constraints of the administration.
Plans a series of meeting to discuss the situation with beef imports from Canada. He also said USDA attorneys are meeting with those representing the R-CALF ranchers group to prepare for the lawsuit the latter is expected to file against USDA's minimal risk policy on Canadian beef.
In response to another question, Johanns said he has not made any decisions on members of his immediate staff. There have been reports that J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, and Dale Moore, chief of staff for outgoing secretary Ann M. Veneman would stay on at least for a while.
But Johanns said he was not prepared to make any announcements about those positions.