Reviewing American Agriculture's Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities
This month began with the United States Secretary of Agriculture traveling to Ohio to deliver the keynote address at my annual Farm Forum. As you may know, the agriculture industry provides employment for one in six Ohioans, and the economy of our state and our nation depends heavily on it. That's why Farm Forum is so important to me. It gives Ohio farmers a unique chance to meet one-on-one with key policy-makers from the field of agriculture. And it was gratifying to see this year's event drew the biggest Farm Forum crowd ever.
Just days after Farm Forum, I welcomed more than one hundred members of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation to Capitol Hill during the group's annual working visit to Washington, D.C. We gathered together to discuss Ohio's and our country's agriculture outlook for the year ahead and review last year's high and low points for the farm industry. This is a meeting I look forward to every March.
March also marks the month in which we celebrate National Agriculture Week. Observed this year during the week of March 14th, National Agriculture Week gives all of us a chance to thank the men and women at the heart of this essential American industry. It also gives us an opportunity to take a closer look at the direction of American - and Ohio - farming. With this in mind, and reflecting the issues discussed both at Farm Forum and with the Ohio Farm Bureau, here is a very brief review of where U.S. agriculture is and - more importantly - where it's going:
American agriculture is strong. At Farm Forum, Secretary Veneman confirmed, "2003 was a landmark year for American agriculture. We had a record net cash farm income, which is now estimated at $63 billion." All the while, U.S. farmers continue to supply the world's best food at a low price. American families spend less than ten percent of their income on food, while consumers in most other countries face much higher food expenses. And our farmers are more productive than ever before. Today, each U.S. farmer feeds more than 130 people in this country and abroad. As the world population expands from 6 billion to 7.5 billion by the year 2020, many will look to America to fulfill this demand.
International trade strengthens U.S. farmers. Our nation continues to pursue new trade agreements with our global partners, and our farmers continue to reap the benefits. Agriculture remains America's top exporting sector. In fact, last year U.S. farmers produced the second highest amount of agriculture exports in history. Here in Ohio, it's no different. About one-third of our overall agriculture production finds its way to overseas markets - a major boon to Buckeye State farmers.
Farmers need a permanent repeal of the Death Tax. Early on in the Bush Administration, Congress and the President agreed to a gradual phase-out of the Death Tax. This tax is imposed on family businesses and farms when the owners pass away and can be as high as 60 percent of the estate value. This overburdening tax has forced thousands of farmers to sell land, buildings, or equipment to pay the government. For the benefit of American agriculture, we must make certain the tax repeal is made permanent.
U.S. agriculture will gain much under a comprehensive energy policy. Congress continues its work to pass long-overdue energy legislation. In addition to provisions to boost domestic production of oil and natural gas - which would help lower fuel, fertilizer, and irrigation costs - the energy bill contains a Renewable Fuels Standard that would double the use of ethanol and biodiesel. This would replace billions of gallons of foreign oil every year and create around 200,000 new jobs.
There are many more issues to discuss and points that were raised at Farm Forum and by Ohio Farm Bureau members in my recent meeting with them. But the point is clear: U.S. agriculture is strong, with a bright future ahead - provided the right decisions continue to be made by the industry and by policymakers. In the meantime, as we celebrate National Agriculture Week, we should take a few minutes to thank our farmers and ranchers. Then, we should reflect on what how different our homes, our country, and our world would be without them.