During the National Potato Council's annual visit to Washington, D.C., today, Mark Udall advocated for continued pressure on Mexico to relax its restrictions on market access for U.S. agricultural products, speaking to approximately 125 potato farmers from across the country about some of his efforts to support the potato industry and Colorado's rural economies and agricultural heritage.
Colorado's exports to Mexico - much of which are agricultural goods and food products that include potatoes, wheat, corn and dairy - are valued at $750 million and help sustain jobs in both urban and rural parts of the state. However, because of ongoing issues with restricted access to Mexican markets, Udall wrote to Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan yesterday encouraging him to explore ways to strengthen our two countries' cooperative trade relationship. Sarukhan plans to visit Colorado in March, and Udall said he hopes the ambassador will look into resolving the restricted-access issue. Some of the potato farmers attending today's visit shared their concerns with Udall about the issue as they also gear up for a Colorado trade mission to Mexico in March, organized by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
"Consider me a partner on your effort to keep the pressure on Mexico to relax its restrictions on market access for U.S. potatoes," Udall said during his remarks. "We need to keep fighting for fair market access in Mexico and across our globe as we look to foreign markets where we can sell American products. In agriculture, exports have grown exponentially." Udall added that, "To meet this growing demand, we need a robust farm bill that supports America's food security and the ability of America's farmers and ranchers to sell to new and growing markets."
This call comes as Senate and House agricultural leaders continue discussions to advance a 2012 Farm Bill. Among other issues, Udall also referenced a letter he wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to encourage his agency to look for new, innovative ways to expand producers' access to agricultural lands and encourage young people to take up farming.
"Our nation depends on American agriculture for a reliable and safe food supply - and we need to ensure another generation of farmers and ranchers is ready to take over when their parents and grandparents retire," Udall said.
Dwayne Weyers, the newly elected Executive Board Member of the National Potato Council and a potato farmer from Center, Colo., introduced Udall at the event.
Below is the text of Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery:
... [Introductory material]
I'm especially proud of our potato growers. I know we have a strong contingent of Colorado growers here - and they're representing the growers who couldn't make it to D.C. this year.
Over the past several years, you all have been working well together to ensure potato farmers and their products get a fair shake when it comes to federal nutrition programs. And I want to thank you for that.
I know that your livelihoods and your communities depend on fair treatment here in Washington.
You should know that your visits here are important. You help inform the discussion about critical issues. I make a point to visit regularly with growers in Colorado, but conversations like these are one of the important ways you make your needs and concerns known here on Capitol Hill.
My friends, the last year has been a frustrating one here in Washington. It's been marked by gridlock and political bickering.
But we have had some bright moments. For example, thanks to your efforts at home, and here in Washington, we were able to work together - across party lines - to ensure the produce you cultivate will be treated with the fairness it deserves.
I was proud to work with Senator Collins of Maine to pass a measure that prevented unnecessary limits on starchy vegetables in school meals. The USDA wanted restrictions that would have made it expensive and difficult for schools to serve healthy, affordable meals.
We just needed to put a little Colorado common sense to work. And in the end, that's what prevailed.
The compromise we negotiated with the USDA and Senate leadership provides flexibility for schools, ensures kids will get nutritious meals, and helps farmers who grow healthy, wholesome produce for their local schools.
What critics here in Washington don't understand is that you all have kids too. You have children and grandchildren that eat school meals and you want to make sure they are eating healthy too. We all want the best for our kids.
But the solution isn't to impose regulations that go far beyond what's necessary and tie the hands of our farmers and school districts. The solution is to provide flexibility...to ensure that local schools can access as much fresh, local produce as possible and prepare it in a healthy way.
And I'm proud that's what we were able to accomplish.
Now I know there is much, much more on your list to get done. I look forward to continuing to work with you. For example, consider me a partner on your effort to keep the pressure on Mexico to relax its restrictions on market access for U.S. potatoes.
I have continued to relay the message about this to Secretary Vilsack and Undersecretary Avalos. In Colorado, we've been working on all fronts.
We need to keep fighting for fair market access in Mexico and across our globe as we look to foreign markets where we can sell American products. In agriculture, as I'm sure many of you are aware, exports have grown exponentially. And the future will continue to look bright as free trade agreements with Korea, Panama and Colombia are implemented and we seek greater access to markets in Asia.
To meet this growing demand, we need a robust farm bill that supports America's food security and the ability of America's farmers and ranchers to sell to new and growing markets.
There's no question that we need to do this in a fiscally responsible way. We must craft a farm bill this year that helps farmers protect themselves from the inherent risks in the business and adequately invests in the research and programming that will keep American agriculture sustainable and competitive. We can and should get this done. And we must not let partisanship get in the way.
I want to highlight just one more issue before I end my remarks. I'm sure you have all seen the statistics, but it is a fact that the average age of America's farmers and ranchers continues to rise, and we're seeing fewer young men and women entering the profession.
This should be of concern to all of us. We need to find new and creative ways to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Our effort needs to be multi-pronged, including looking at ways that existing programs at the USDA and other agencies can work to support beginning and retiring farmers and ranchers. For example, we can strengthen agency resources that encourage linking new farmers and ranchers with those who are retiring, which can be an effective tool to support new producers and help keep land in agriculture.
I know Secretary Vilsack has been working to strengthen access to services for this group of farmers and ranchers, and I applaud him for that. But all Americans need to work to find new opportunities to support our agricultural community as well.
This is another issue where partisanship has no place. Our nation depends on American agriculture for a reliable and safe food supply - and we need to ensure another generation of farmers and ranchers is ready to take over when their parents and grandparents retire.
And that's a good segue into my conclusion. If there's one message I want to leave you with today, it's how important it is for all of us to work together - regardless of party - to ensure our agricultural system is strong.
My collaboration with Senator Collins is evidence that we CAN work together across party lines, for the good of our country. All of us here know that there are many other challenges that need similar cooperation in order to find a solution. And I'm confident that we can continue to partner together and make progress for the future of American agriculture.
Thank you again for having me this morning. I look forward to working with you all on these and many other issues in the future.