WASHINGTON, July 23, 2014 – While U.S. farm exports are forecast to reach a record $149.5 billion in the current fiscal year, some say they could be growing even faster -- if only USDA had a designated Under Secretary for Trade, as mandated in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., who was George W. Bush’s agriculture secretary from 2005 through most of 2007, won bipartisan support in Congress and endorsements from 30 farm and food industry organizations when he added the following amendment to the farm bill requiring USDA to: “implement a reorganization of international trade functions for imports and exports of the Department of Agriculture, including the establishment of an Under Secretary of Agriculture for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.”

The measure called for the agriculture secretary to report to Congress on a reorganization plan by Aug. 6. And the Senate Appropriations Committee has warned that “no later than August 6, 2015, the secretary is required to implement this reorganization.”

A coalition of ag organizations including the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Meat Institute, National Corn Growers, United Fresh Produce Association, Western Growers Association and 23 other groups is keeping up the pressure.

The coalition points out that “the trade organizational structure at USDA has remained unchanged since it was last reorganized in 1978” – and that changes are needed because “overseas markets represent 73 percent of the world’s purchasing power, 87 percent of the economic growth, and 95 percent of the world’s customers,” and because “we’re trying to solve 21st century trade problems with a 20th century organizational structure.”

Johanns questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in May about progress on the report due Aug. 6. Vilsack replied that there might be a delay because “this is a lot more complicated than I initially recognized” and because “there is a lot going on at USDA . . .  and we have a reduced workforce, we are continuing to stress budget constraints.”

In the latest indication of delay, USDA told Agri-Pulse that the report due Aug. 6 “is expected later this year.” With the deadline three weeks away, a USDA spokesman had this to say:

“The department is approaching this report very thoughtfully and deliberately. We are still determining how to approach a potential reorganization in a way that would best meet the goals laid out in the Farm Bill while continuing to accomplish all of USDA’s duties and provide exceptional service to all who rely on us.”

Johanns offered another reason for delay. He told Agri-Pulse that from his tenure at the helm of USDA, he understands that the mandated reorganization will set off “turf battles.” He said it’s vital that Vilsack overcome any resistance because of the urgent need for a trade czar “whose focus 24/7 is how can we improve trade opportunities, how can we deal with trade disputes, how can we make sure that trade is flowing freely.”

Johanns says that if eliminating one of the current seven under-secretary slots is too high a hurdle, he’d be “open” to considering creating an eighth slot.

Randy Russell, who was Agriculture Secretary John Block’s chief of staff in the early 1980s and now works on ag issues as principal at the Russell Group, says congressional determination to curb spending makes a new slot unlikely. He says it will be difficult to eliminate an existing under secretary, but the move is essential to make room for a USDA official “who’s recruited based on a background in trade and global affairs . . . who is focused solely on trade.”

Tom Sleight, president and CEO of the U.S. Grains Council, says his group recognizes that USDA reorganization will be tough. But he’s confident it will happen within another year and that the result will create “high-level engagement on issues that are key to expanding exports.” Among the issues on his agenda for the post: biotechnology and acceptance of biotechnology, infrastructure, trade competitiveness, biofuels and trade negotiations, particularly the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“We see the new position as really maintaining a laser focus on those issues,” he said.

OFW Law attorney Nathan Fretz, a farm bill veteran from his days as House Agriculture Committee counsel and earlier work at USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, explains that “agricultural trade challenges are frequently complex phytosanitary issues that cut across multiple USDA agencies.”

“Given the complexity of the issues and scope of personnel that can be involved in resolving them, it’s imperative to have a single point of contact within the department to lead and coordinate a rapid, focused response,” he said. Fretz said he expects USDA to meet the August 2015 reorganization deadline by working with stakeholders “for input on how best to establish the Under Secretary for Trade in order to maximize our agricultural trade opportunities.”

USDA’s seven current Under Secretaries

•           Michael T. Scuse, Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services

•           Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services

•           Brian Ronholm, Acting Under Secretary for Food Safety

•           Ed Avalos, Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs

•           Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment

•           Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics

•           Lisa Mensah has been nominated to serve as Under Secretary for Rural Development


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