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  • 30 Key Quotes from Tom Vilsack's First 100 Days with U.S. Dairy

    By Mark O'Keefe May 10, 2017

    Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been crisscrossing the globe as a frequently quoted ambassador for USDEC and the U.S. dairy industry.


    Vilsack7.jpgFormer U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack began his tenure as the U.S. Dairy Export Council's president and CEO on February 1.

    Today marks a milestone, 100 days, which in recent years has become a moment to take stock on a new leader.

    In his first 100 days, Secretary Vilsack has crisscrossed the country and the world as a dairy ambassador, making speeches, meeting with government officials and doing media interviews at nearly every stop.  For example, he is in Japan today.

    An analysis of news coverage, utilizing media monitoring service Meltwater News, shows the most frequent topics in stories mentioning Vilsack have been:

    • Canada (532).
    • The North American Free Trade Agreement (336).
    • President Trump (293).
    • Mexico (209).

    An international debate about trade policy is the umbrella over all those topics.

    Media Focuses on Vilsack and Trade Policy-344920-edited.png

    As a former Cabinet member overseeing the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a former governor of Iowa, Vilsack provides an informed perspective and friendly demeanor reporters are attracted to. 

    Media requests have soared, and so has coverage, externally and by USDEC. I interviewed Vilsack at length in the lobby of a Marriott Hotel in Mexico City in March. Some candid and personal comments from that interview are published for the first time below.

    Those quotes are among 30 selected from Secretary Vilsack's first 100 days representing the U.S. dairy industry. Also included: Tweets from around the world and embedded videos of television interviews. 

    30 key quotes from Secretary Tom Vilsack

    1. USDEC job a natural extension: "Once you have been part of the President's cabinet and you have been an elected official at the highest level of politics some people will argue that anything different is a step down. I don't look at it that way. I think it's a natural extension of what I did before." (USDEC interview)

    2. Enjoying job: "I'm having a good time basically doing what I did before. I travel around the country talking to farmers and go outside the country trying to sell what we produce. (April 3 interview with National Public Radio)

    3. Nice to be wanted: "I took more satisfaction out of the first six weeks or so of this job than I did the first six weeks after I left the governor's office. It's nice to be wanted. Seriously. A lot of people work jobs because they have to, because they can't leave. A lot of people work jobs where they aren't appreciated, but I certainly have a sense that people appreciate my eagerness to take this job." (USDEC interview)

    4. Best team in agribusiness: “It is great to be part of a team that represents the best in agribusiness…. an organization that represents producers, processors, ingredient suppliers, traders, all of the people who have a vested interest in seeing us export more dairy product. There is a tremendous sense of family and teamwork that is associated with the dairy industry. So I am really pleased and privileged to be here.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    5. Proactive dairy industry: "Dairy is one of the more proactive groups in agriculture. I remember going to Denmark for one of the climate meetings and seeing dairy producers from this country leading the effort to reduce greenhouse gases in dairy production and along the supply chain." (USDEC interview)

    6. Innovation: "The processors, ingredients suppliers and other companies involved with USDEC are some of most innovative in the country. They are constantly looking for ways to unlock the great treasure that dairy is." (USDEC interview)

    7 Room for everyone, large and small:  "A nice thing about this industry is there is room for the very small producers and there is room for the very big producers and they can be in the same room at the same time talking through a common agenda. That isn't always the case in agriculture." (USDEC interview)

    8. Values of rural America: “Rural America is the place that disproportionately sends sons and daughters into the military to protect us. Rural America is the place, because of the incredible efficiency and productivity of farmers, that has allowed consumers to walk out of grocery stores with more money in our pockets than just about any other people in the world as a percentage of income spent on food. It is an incredibly important place. It’s a place where our values are centered and rooted.” (January 31 address at IDFA Dairy Forum)

    9. U.S. Dairy creates jobs: "Anything we do to support the dairy industry helps create jobs and support jobs." (USDEC interview)

    10. U.S. Dairy's economic impact: “I wonder whether our friends and neighbors understand that (dairy exports represent) a $15 billion impact on the economy. I wonder if the nearly 100,000 folks who are employed as a result of dairy exports understand and appreciate the link between their job, their livelihood, their ability to support their families and the hard workers who are in dairy operations across the country and in facilities that are processing and producing product across the country.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    11. Stronger industry, stronger country: “All of this is designed to create more global demand for what you produce; additional more open markets for what you produce; more sales of what you produce; more income for all who are in the supply chain; more jobs, and importantly a stronger industry which I believe makes a stronger country.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    12. Bright future, based on the numbers: “I think the future for our industry is incredibly bright and optimistic. Indeed, world populations will continue to grow. It is projected that we will have 9 to 10 billion people by the year 2050. Indeed, middle classes will expand.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    13. Desire in China, elsewhere, for more dairy: “I just recently got back from a trip to Singapore and China, and there are remarkable opportunities for American dairy exports to both Southeast Asia and China. There is a hunger and desire and an expanding middle class in Southeast Asian countries and China where there is going to be increased demand for cheese, increased demand for ingredients, for more protein, for more protein concentrates.” (April recorded interview)

    14.  One industry, united: “We are challenged to really ‘punch above our weight’ because there are about a million cattle producers in the country today and there are about 43,000 dairy farm operations in the country today. So, if you are talking to policymakers and you are dealing with the differences between a million and 43,000, you see it creates a challenge. It is important and necessary for everyone in the supply chain that is impacted and is affected by dairy… to speak as best we can with a single unified voice.” (January 31 address at IDFA Dairy Forum)

    15. Three immediate goals: “I think everybody would agree that it is important to secure access to product, whether it is here domestically or internationally, and to make sure that markets are open and available. Three goals that I will focus on in my new position: securing more access, increasing demand and facilitating sales.” (January 31 address at IDFA Dairy Forum)

    16. A big, overarching goal: “I am a great believer in setting goals, establishing benchmarks and strategizing. That's why we want member reaction and feedback to the goal of increasing exports from 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. milk production.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    17. How to reach the next 5 percent: “It is going to be important for us, I think, to have a more physical presence in many of these areas (around the world) so that we have a better understanding and appreciation for how we can tailor and, in a sense, personalize our products to be attractive in markets.” (March 28 address at USDEC spring board meeting)

    18. Concerns in Mexico: “I just recently came back from Mexico visiting with not just Mexican officials, but also agriculture officials from the United States who were down there to sort of soothe the anxiety and concerns of our Mexican purchasers. And, I’ll tell you, I heard a lot of concern.” (March 31 interview with Iowa Public Television)

    19. Working for a win-win with Mexico: “We have always seen Mexico as a partner first and a customer second. That’s why we intend to continue working with you and your industry to expand dairy consumption in a way that benefits both countries.” (March 15 address at the National Dairy Forum in Mexico City, organized by the Mexican Federation of Milk Producers or Femeleche)

    20. Growing demand in Mexico: “Since 1994, Mexican production has increased by 58 percent, and all of that production increase has been absorbed by consumer demand that we, working with Mexican producers and Mexican interests, have increased consumer demand in Mexico for dairy products.” (March 10 interview with Politico)

    21. Don't take your wife, or your customer, for granted: “I have been married to Christie for 43 years, and I don’t take her for granted. In fact, I frequently try to tell her how much I appreciate her. Likewise, I am here today to make it clear the U.S. dairy industry appreciates the Mexican farming community and the industry, and we don’t take our partnership for granted.” (March 15 address at the National Dairy Forum in Mexico City)

    22. The need for more win-win relationships: “They cannot be win-lose. They cannot be what economists call a zero-sum game. Lasting partnerships must be win-win. We don’t want to just protect our mutually beneficial dairy partnership. We want to see it grow.” (March 15 address at the National Dairy Forum in Mexico City)

    23. Modernizing NAFTA: This is not the time to pull out of NAFTA. This is the time to modernize it, to take some of the issues that have been irritants for a considerable period of time and try to resolve them, get them in a better place. This is an important relationship between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico. It’s an important economic relationship. We obviously want to preserve it, we want to strengthen it.” (April 30 broadcast of The West Block, a Canadian public affairs program)

    24. Steel important, but so is dairy: “When we basically shake the tree down in Mexico, the reality is the people that are going to suffer are our farmers. When we don’t speak clearly about the need for agricultural open markets in Canada, our farmers basically pay the penalty. So, it’s great to talk about steel; it’s great to talk about autos. We should talk about those things, but not in a way that creates problems for our farmers and our agriculture.” (March 31 interview with Iowa Public Television)

    25. Canada tilts the playing field: “The Canadian system essentially limits the amount that is produced and the amount that is processed, which results in higher cost for consumers in Canada, but it also makes it more difficult for importers to have a level playing field because the system is constantly being changed and modified by the Canadian government to tilt, to be able to favor their producers.” (April recorded interview)

    26. Canada chokes off U.S. exports: “Our federal and state governments cannot abide by Canada’s disregard for its trade commitment to the United States and its intentional decision to pursue policies that are choking off sales of American-made milk to the detriment of U.S. dairy farmers.” (USDEC news release that was excerpted in April 17 article by The Washington Post)

    27. We want a more open market: "I think basically we want a more open market. We want to take a look at tariff lines. We want to take a look at ways in which the Canadian government in the past has, in our view, manipulated the market a little bit to make it more difficult for imports from the U.S. to come into that market to provide Canadian consumers choice and options." (April 30 broadcast of The West Block, a Canadian public affairs program)

    28. Dairy's need for immigrant labor: "Many dairy producers are reliant on immigrant labor, and they believe that some of the talk about deporting people has created anxiety and uncertainty in their workforce." (April 3 interview with National Public Radio)

    29. Our broken immigration system:  "The failure of our Congress to fix a broken immigration system results in agricultural producers not producing as much as they are capable. They are not planting as much and they are not harvesting as much. This is already having an impact and it will continue to squeeze the amount of supply that is available, which will make us more dependent on imports, which can be more expensive because imports sometimes come from far away." (April 3 interview with National Public Radio)

    And, finally, a personal note about Vilsack's family history:

    30. On being adopted:  "I was fortunate to have people care for me when I was very young as a baby. In the orphanage, they took good care of me and made sure that I found a family quickly after I was born. I was fortunate to have a Mom and Dad who loved me and cared deeply about me, who believed in me, who were proud of me. Despite Mom's challenges (with addiction) she made the decision, with a lot of help, to turn her life around and provided an amazing example to me of persistence. My Dad sacrificed virtually everything he had to make sure that I had a great education. That's one of the great gifts that you can give any child." (USDEC interview)

    Mark O'Keefe is vice president of editorial services at the U.S. Dairy Export Council. 

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    The U.S. Dairy Export Council fosters collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. USDEC is primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy farmer checkoff. How to republish this post.

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