Vilsack Invites Industry on Trade Mission

OMAHA (DTN) -- While the future of the renewable fuel standard hangs in the balance, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack Thursday invited ethanol industry executives to join USDA in promoting ethanol and biofuels abroad.
The recently passed farm bill has enabled U.S. agriculture to re-engage in trade promotion. Vilsack said during a speech at the Growth Energy executive leadership conference in Phoenix, Ariz., that he wants that promotion to begin with a mission to China this year.
"China, India and Japan are emerging markets," he said. "They have been slow to embrace [biofuels]. We think they are ripe for discussion.
"I'd like you all this spring and summer to be involved in the first-ever trade mission that involves biofuels. I want you to make the case you've made to me to Chinese officials. Take me up on the offer to aggressively promote ethanol, to spread the word to make the case. There's enormous potential out there. We want to be partners with you in realizing that potential."
Vilsack said he has been in contact with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy about the agency proposal to cut RFS volumes across the board, including corn-based ethanol, and he has asked the administrator to closely read the thousands of comments submitted in support of the law.
"I have reached out to my colleagues at EPA so they fully understand the importance of this industry," he said. "I have asked Gina McCarthy to look at the comments. I believe she will. I don't know what that decision is going to be. I don't control that decision.
"I'm a firm believer in this industry. Those in Congress who want to repeal the RFS are on the wrong track. This industry has reduced trends we've seen in rural areas for a long time. You are the future of rural America. We would not be talking about blend walls if the oil industry was putting infrastructure in place."
Opposition to the RFS has included some unusual alliances, most notably finding environmentalists and the oil industry on the same side.
Vilsack said ethanol producers and rural America as a whole should respond by forming their own alliances, making their voices heard to their neighbors and to candidates for office who come around asking for their support.
"There are so few people who farm that they need to create alliances," he said. "There needs to be a series of heart-to-heart conversations with folks in the environmental community. They need to understand you so they join you."
Recent agriculture census data points to a changing industry, Vilsack said. There has been growth in the number of large farming operations, he said, while the number of middle-sized farms continues to erode.
"It would have been steeper and deeper if not for this industry [ethanol]," Vilsack said. "You are doing something significant for agriculture. You also understand the significance of this industry and success to the future of our country. It provides greater stability to farm families across the country. It can stabilize income. Those who have small- and medium-sized operations, it provides another market where they don't have to compete with larger ag ventures.
"You help to create when the country is desperate for jobs. To those who wonder who needs a fuel industry, renewable fuel has helped to reduce the tide of the great recession."
Regardless of what direction EPA decides to go with the RFS, Vilsack said the new farm bill gives USDA room to help the biofuels and biorefining industries.
The farm bill includes the Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, that provides grants and loan guarantees to farmers and small businesses. However, those funds can no longer be used for funding ethanol blender pumps.
Vilsack said he's willing to use many other USDA programs to help develop rural businesses. That includes what is called "mandatory money" available during the life of the farm bill totaling $80 million.
"I don't have to go to Congress and beg for money," he said.

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