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Transcript Of Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Remarks To The National Congress Of American Indians Executive Council Winter Session

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Location: Washington, DC


TRANSCRIPT OF AGRICULTURE SECRETARY MIKE JOHANNS REMARKS TO THE NATIONAL CONGRESS OF AMERICAN INDIANS EXECUTIVE COUNCIL WINTER SESSION

Well, thank you very much. It's great to be here. I just said to the President, I thought he gave a great speech. I kind of feel intimidated just following him.

[Laughter.]

So, well, my thanks to all of you. I want you to know it's an honor to be here with you again this year. I have a very strong appreciation for the long history between this organization and the Department of Agriculture. We've had a partnership on so many levels, what we would describe as a true circle of friendship. That's something I respect, and I want you to know it's something I deeply appreciate.

As you know, Native Americans were America's first farmers, so you know better than anyone that agriculture is a living legacy. Native American contributions to horticulture and to science, the cultivation of more than 300 food crops by the Indians of the Americas have created a very rich array of food and fiber, crops that we enjoy right up to today.

But as any farmer will tell you, and I speak as you know as the son of a farmer, agriculture is oftentimes the sum of many complex parts. I can honestly say that after growing up on that small dairy farm in North Central Iowa, everything in life has been easy after that.

[Laughter.]

I see a lot of heads nodding. I'm sure that every farmer in this room would agree with me when I say that. Because I come from a farm, I understand the pressures and the challenges that are faced by America's small farmers in rural communities. And I know that those challenges can be even tougher in the Indian country.

That's why I've worked so closely and on a regular basis with Native American tribes when I was the governor of the state of Nebraska. Each year we would have a tribal summit. We would have a list of concerns to go through submitted by those attending, and we would literally work our way through that list, making sure that there was continuity and making sure that there was follow-through.

Now I may be working in Washington now, but I want to assure you that nothing has changed. You have my commitment that the government-to-government relationship will be a strong and effective working partnership.

Now does that mean we will have complete agreement on every issue? I suspect not. But it does mean that we have an open door and a culture across the entire Department of Agriculture to do all we can to work with each of you and to address the issues that are important.

With me today are a few individuals I am delighted to introduce. Yolanda Garcia is USDA's new director of our 1994 programs. She is from the Yaqui Tribe of Arizona and brings her legal and tribal college experience to the Office of Civil Rights.

If Yolanda is here with us, would she stand? There. Right back there. Okay. How about a round of applause?

[Applause.]

And Patrick Atagi, would you please stand? Patrick, where are you? Patrick walking in.

[Applause.]

Patrick comes from a small farm in rural Eastern Oregon where his family raised specialty crops. He succeeds Annabelle Romero, now USDA's Deputy Assistant for Civil Rights.

I want to stress that the Office of Native American Programs will continue to report directly to me.

[Applause]

Patrick will maintain Annabelle's close relationship with our tribal nations and ensure that USDA programs reach all American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. One of Patrick's first jobs has been to update the "Guide to USDA Programs for American Indians and Alaska Natives," which I'm delighted to announce we are releasing today on the USDA website. This will be an excellent resource. I ask you to take a look at it. It's one of the many ways that we have of reaching out to make sure that the Native American community has access to the full range of USDA services and programs.

I am very aware that outreach is a real concern. When I held a Farm Bill listening session in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Joe Shirley Jr., the president of the Navajo Nation, told me, and I'm quoting: "We need more personnel out there to relate to us." And I understand that, and I want you to know that President Bush has requested more money this year for extension programs on reservations, and Congress has approved the President's request.

This means we can expand these programs and put more Extension agents on reservations. And to keep doing a better job of outreach, we have several websites expressly designed for American Indian and Alaska Native customers. Our National Animal Identification System site is dedicated to answering your questions and helping tribes register their premises. And I might say, we're making some great progress.

We need and appreciate your cooperation in this tremendously important endeavor. Because USDA's programs affect all of Indian country, we take a holistic approach to this partnership. Now with the upcoming Farm Bill we have a real opportunity, ladies and gentlemen, to recast farm policy in ways that build on this administration's commitment to protect our natural resources and do a better job for our producers and constituents.

You'll find that across the board the Farm Bill proposals do affect Indian country, from commodity programs to nutrition, conservation, energy, and research. Our goal in so, many ways and under so many titles of this bill, is to reach out to our constituents, bring those on poverty's edge under the umbrella of nutrition programs, bring jobs and opportunities to all communities, bring producers into conservation programs so they can do right for themselves and for Mother Earth, and give them the resources they need to make a difference through investment and through partnership.

We know how important the Farm Bill is to Native Americans, with the largest payments coming from our four major programs -- direct payments, the countercyclical payment program, the Conservation Reserve, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Before I get to these programs, let me stress that we will consult with you on the Farm Bill and proposed rulemaking as that develops.

We made it a point to hold some of our Farm Bill forums two years ago in areas where small and under-served farmers lived and worked. Many of the speakers told us about barriers to entering agricultural production. They stressed the need for partnership at the local level. We listened very carefully to those comments, and we heard great wisdom from these people.

We heard that it's time for America's farm policy to equitably and to truly represent all producers in this great nation. It's time to reach out to smaller and beginning farmers and to those who are traditionally under-served. As the obstacles to getting started in farming kept getting bigger, the window of opportunity is closing on bringing new generations into farming and preserving the family farm way of life for our children and for our nation's future. It is imperative that we act now. That's why we are recommending a series of steps to give beginning and under-served producers the support that they ask for at these forums.

We heard repeatedly that it's almost impossible for young farmers to get started in farming. You name it. Higher land prices, rising equipment costs, government payments that go mostly to the larger or more established farmers. They were all cited as barriers to entry. So we're proposing to provide $250 million to increase the direct payment for beginning farmers and ranchers. I believe this is a wise investment in the next generation of production agriculture, and it will go directly to them.

On the credit side, young farmers keep asking us to figure out creative ways to help them get started in farming. So we thought this through and came up with solid proposals that offered more loan flexibility to help beginning and socially disadvantaged producers buy land and obtain farm operating loans.

We would double the percentage of direct operating loans targeted to these producers to 70 percent and target 100 percent of direct farm ownership loans to them, 100 percent.

We also want to provide them more help with down payment loan access and flexibility. So we are proposing to literally cut the interest rate in half, defer the first payment for the entire first year, and eliminate totally the $250,000 cap on the value of property that may be purchased.

We also have changes in mind for our countercyclical program, and we believe that we will benefit all farmers who take part in it. Because the current program is tied to crop prices but doesn't take into account yields, it offers little help to farmers that had a bad production year and crop prices that are high. Yet at the same time it tends to overcompensate them in years where they've had good strong yields and a crop where prices hold fairly steady or maybe even drop a little.

We propose basing the programs on revenues instead so farmers that need the help the most in years where crop production is down because of drought or other conditions, will in fact be able to get that help.

To me one of the most exciting things about our Farm Bill proposals is what we are proposing in the area of conservation. And this, like the other proposals, is very important to you. Since the 2002 Farm Bill, over 2,600 EQIP contracts worth $79 million had been signed with American Indians or Alaskan Natives. The number of cost-share contracts signed with tribes under EQIP has actually tripled from 2002 to 2006. To date we have 26 Tribal Conservation Districts providing the local leadership needed to target planning and assistance to Indian country.

To benefit farmers, the environment and all constituents, this administration proposes a $7.8 billion increase above what we have done already, increase in conservation funding. We also plan to consolidate a number of programs into a new and a streamlined EQIP program. This would include a new regional Water Enhancement Program.

These proposals, along with a new Conservation Access Initiative, will do a far better job of delivering programs and assistance to Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

We also want to encourage all of our producers and especially beginning and socially disadvantaged producers to do more in the area of conservation, so we plan to set aside 10 percent of all, all Farm Bill conservation spending to address the needs of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a historic financial commitment. But again, I believe it is a wise and an equitable federal investment in producers and in our nation. Even more important, it's a major statement of the administration's dedication to our country's conservation goals.

To achieve greater environmental benefits for society, we need to bring each and every interested farmer into this system.

As a grandfather and as the son of a farmer, I believe in the wisdom of the Indian nations that we are the keeper of seven generations. To do justice to that stewardship, we must be one with the universe by sustaining its natural resources for those who follow for years to come.

It's also our commitment at USDA to support another of our nation's precious resources-- our rural and our farm communities. As we traveled the country in our listening sessions, we didn't hear one negative comment on our Rural Development programs, not a single one. Why? Because people are seeing the proof of our investment in rural communities. They are seeing the jobs created, the infrastructure built and improved, the energy projects that are up and running.

Since President Bush took office in 2001, USDA Rural Development has invested about $1.3 billion in tribal and Alaskan Native communities. Rural America covers three-quarters of the land area of this nation, and it encompasses most of our sovereign tribal nations. Its home to 65 million people. It includes some of the fastest-growing communities in America as well as areas that have been bypassed and left behind.

Native American communities are an integral part of the rural fabric. We all know that without sufficient infrastructure, rural communities struggle to provide basic services and a decent quality of life. Health care is the absolute foundation of rural needs. We are proposing $1.6 billion in a loan guarantee program to finance the rehabilitation of every single one of our certified rural critical access hospitals that have not been rehabilitated. That's more than 1,200 hospitals our constituents desperately need.

[Applause.]

I believe that this is one of the most important proposals we are making in our Farm Bill proposals. We would commit $500 million to another basic need, attacking the backlog of applications for rural infrastructure loans and grants. These might include everything in your community from water to wastewater disposal projects, to emergency water assistance-- the kind of investments that hit very, very close to home.

We also are making a big investment in the future. And by that I mean in rural America's newest cash crop, the promise and the potential of renewable energy. I believe bioenergy from agriculture offers the rural economy its biggest new market in our history.

I also believe, as your President has said in his State of the Indian Nation's address, that "tribes can be great players in this initiative. Indian nations across the country have a vast renewable energy potential, and many of them are leading the way in developing wind and solar and biomass and geothermal energy sources." You see, ladies and gentlemen, by working as partners we are making a difference. A wind turbine in the fishing community of Hooper Bay, Alaska, is helping to reduce demand for diesel fuel there by 24 percent. We're bringing solar power to homes on the Navajo Reservation in Cameron, Arizona, that have no service from the electrical grid. I could not be more excited about our Farm Bill proposal for renewable energy.

We plan to spend $500 million to create a bioenergy and bioproducts research program and $500 more for rural alternative energy and energy efficiency grants. This will go directly to farmers and to ranchers and to small businesses.

We're also proposing $150 million wood-to-energy program to develop new technologies that use low-value woody biomass to produce energy.

And while we're working to revitalize and realize the economic promise of rural America, we are always reaching out to citizens to help them realize their individual promise, their dreams and their goals through education. This administration, starting with the President, strongly believes in the power of education. I am pleased and proud that the number of graduates in math and science is increasing in the tribal colleges.

Let me just wrap up with a couple comments on nutrition. I mentioned earlier that we take a holistic view of our relationship with Indian country. There is little that relates more directly to the well-being of communities than the nutrition of its people. We know that the working poor and elderly, both rural and urban, participate at a lower rate in the Food Stamp Program than the general low-income population. And I believe it's time to do something about that. We propose excluding all retirement accounts and the value of IRS approved college saving plans from the resource limit in determining program eligibility.

Many of our Native Americans are serving proudly and bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a nation, we deeply appreciate and honor their service, and we appreciate the sacrifice of their families. But our military families should not be penalized when their loved ones are fighting overseas. So our proposal assures that families do not lose food stamps as a result of any additional combat pay.

And our working families with children need a stronger helping hand, so we're proposing to eliminate the cap on the dependent care deduction.

It's long been a USDA priority to promote consumption of nutritious fruits and vegetables for our programs in Indian country. Our Farm Bill proposal takes this step further to promote the health of all Americans and counter the epidemic of obesity in this country. We will provide an additional $1 billion for specialty crop research. We would also purchase more fruits and vegetables for food nutrition programs along with other efforts. These proposals would target nearly $5 billion in additional funding to support producers of specialty crops.

And to benefit Indian country specifically, we would increase administrative funding by $27 million for the food distribution program on Indian reservations over the next decade. It's a terrific program; it offers nutritious alternatives to Food Stamps.

But we need more funding and we need better allocation of funding to improve access, maintain a consistent level of service, and promote healthy eating. Ladies and gentlemen, you passed a resolution last fall endorsing a change in the way we distribute funds. We heard you, and I ask for your continued support as we move forward. In fact, this is the only way we can move forward with your support, with your voice in full partnership and full cooperation. These historic times demand no less.

My thanks to all of you for giving me this chance to share with you our farm proposals. I hope you will be with us as we advocate for the reauthorization of the Farm Bill this year in Congress. It benefits you and it moves our nation forward.

Thank you very much.

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