Tuesday, December 1, 1998

I want to thank the Farm Journal for having me here today, to talk about a subject that is very close to my heart -- how to strengthen and sustain American agriculture, and preserve not only a critical sector of our economy, but a treasured way of life in this country.

Since well before our nation's founding -- through ups and downs and all kinds of floods and storms -- agriculture has stayed at the very core of America's economy. And I believe the federal government must remain a strong and active partner with our agriculture industry --because we all share a stake in your future.

There is no other industry that touches the lives and the tables of every American family. Thanks to so many of the people in this room, America has the safest, most abundant, most affordable food of almost any nation in the world. It is because of you that the average American family spends just 11 percent of their income on food -- compared to more than half in a nation like China. You truly are America's food chain.

Even though less than two percent of Americans work in agriculture, it is one of the great engines of our economy. Agriculture-related businesses -- many of whom are represented here today -- account for a full ten percent of our GNP. You support about 22 million American jobs.

And at its heart, farming is about so much more than dollars and cents, or even forks and knives. As Franklin Roosevelt once said, "the American farmer, living on his own land, remains our ideal of self-reliance and of spiritual balance -- the source from which the reservoirs of the Nation's strength are constantly renewed. It is from the men and women of our farms, living close to the soil, that this nation...touches Mother Earth and rises with strength renewed a hundredfold."

It was on my family's farm, as a young boy, that I learned the value of hard work; the importance of caring for the land and for the people who work the land; and the fundamental connection between the earth we share and the prosperity we seek. In the words of another great statesman, Daniel Webster, "when tillage begins, other arts follow. The farmers, therefore, are the founders of human civilization." I know that is true.

That is why I feel so strongly about what is happening in agriculture today -- the strong global crop production that is pushing prices down; the global economic turmoil that is stealing some of our best customers; the back-to-back blows Mother Nature has dealt in many parts of the country -- from extreme rainfall, to extreme drought, to record temperatures.

My message today is simple: I am deeply committed to maintaining agriculture as a major pillar of our economy -- by expanding opportunities overseas, and by shoring up the farm safety net here at home.

To achieve real growth, we must work to revive the global economy and to expand trade. With 96 percent of the world's customers outside our borders -- and with a full third of farm income dependent on overseas sales -- growth at home depends on growth abroad. In the past six years, President Clinton and I have worked to forge more than 260 new trade agreements -- and I am proud that we have opened more markets to American agriculture than any other administration in modern history.

As some of you know, I have worked personally to find new markets for our corn in Europe, and for our pork in Russia. And while I know many pork producers are still struggling, we're making progress: just last month, I was proud to announce that Argentina is lifting its ban on United States pork -- an agreement that is expected to bring up to $10 million next year to our pork producers, ultimately becoming a $60 million market. Three weeks ago, at the Asian Pacific economic forum in Malaysia, Secretary Glickman and I made sure agriculture was high on the agenda. And we worked very hard to pass legislation exempting food exports from recent economic sanctions imposed on India and Pakistan.

Our philosophy is a simple one: American foreign policy should help, and not hurt, American farmers. We should use our clout as leverage, to sell more of our goods around the world. It's an approach that is working: the very day after President Clinton signed our exemption for India and Pakistan into law, Pakistan bought 300,000 tons of U.S. wheat.

Clearly, we must do much more. President Clinton and I have been pressing very hard for the kind of economic reforms that will jump-start demand for our products in Asia. Last month, on behalf of the President, I announced a $10 billion package of assistance to help the hurting economies of Asia get back on their feet -- and we are pushing our partners in Europe to open up their markets, so America is not the importer of only resort as cheap goods and agricultural products flow from weakened economies. After a long fight, we won funding for the IMF, which is critical to shoring up the world economy. Now we must do more to expand trade, including the passage of legislation known as "Fast Track" -- and I know that we can do so in a way that also advances labor rights and the environment. We need new markets for America's farmers. And I'm going to fight for them.

While we work to ensure a strong consumer base around the world, we must also tend to the problems here at home. Both the President and I are determined to help farmers recover from the dramatic slide in international demand, and make sure they can plant next spring's crops. That's why President Clinton vetoed Congress's original emergency agriculture bill. Ultimately, we won over $6 billion in emergency farm assistance -- a 40 percent increase over the vetoed bill.

Of course, that's just a start. We still have a Farm Bill that was passed when prices and exports were at record highs -- a bill that assumed global growth that has simply not continued. Should we have a more market-oriented farm policy? I believe we should. Should we give farmers the freedom to plant what they want, and however much they want? No question. Butshould that give government an excuse to walk away when so many farm families are losing their land for reasons beyond their control? Absolutely not.

It is time to strengthen the farm safety net in this country, for the sake of our economic future. That is why I am asking Secretary Glickman to present to me, in time for our next budget, a comprehensive proposal for a stronger farm safety net. I will then present its findings to President Clinton. Together, we must ensure that those who use the land wisely don't lose it at Mother Nature's hands.

I am also pleased to announce today that we will act right now to help hurting farmers. Our Agriculture Department will buy $20 million in U.S. beef for the Federal School Lunch Program. That brings our 1998 beef purchases for domestic food programs to nearly $100 million, providing a crucial boost to ranchers pinched by low prices. As you know, we are also buying millions of tons of U.S. wheat for donation to hungry countries, and we have developed a major food assistance package to help Russia through a difficult winter. These programs can help farmers significantly. For example, the 50,000 tons of pork we are sending to Russia in humanitarian aid will make up nearly 9 percent of our pork exports this year. These are just three examples of the kinds of actions we are taking to help farmers through this economic valley.

Our economy depends on a fully competitive and productive agriculture industry. But there are some structural shifts of which we need to be aware. I am very concerned by the dramatic decline in Class One railroads; by the disappearance of local banks with deep roots in their community; and by the growing number of small family farms going on the auction block. And the issue of consolidation is nothing new: back when I was in the House, I worked to help ensure that ranchers could get fair price as the packing industry became more consolidated. No one can say for sure where these trends will take us, but I believe we have an obligation to see that rural communities and individual farmers are not left by the wayside.

We must also protect our farmland, a tremendously valuable resource. It is estimated that America is losing 50 acres of farmland to development every single hour. That is one reason I have been focussing on the issue of smart growth, and livable communities -- to preserve among new development the family farms and green spaces that are so essential to the American landscape and economy. Fortunately, all across America, communities are coming together to meet these new challenges of growth. In many parts of the country, communities are proving that America can grow according to its values -- and that if we work together, our kids will see horses, cows, and farms outside books and movies.

The fact is, if we lose an acre of fertile farmland, we lose it forever. That's why, two years ago, we reached out to states, tribes, and local governments and asked them to help us protect our farmland through the purchase of easements. Last year, we protected 53,000 acres of prime farmland across the country. In our last budget, we asked for $35 million to purchase easements on more land. Unfortunately, Congress gave us nothing. At stake is more than historic preservation. We must help agriculture meet one of the 21st Century's most pressingquestions: how do we feed a growing world in a sustainable way?

My earliest lessons about the environment were about the prevention of soil erosion on our family farm. And what I learned then I believe now: we should not have an either-or, us-versus-them mentality when it comes to agriculture and the environment. We need both. And we need sustainable natural resource policies, incentive-based conservation efforts, and cutting-edge research to make sustainability a real possibility on the farm.

Over the past six years, we have launched and strengthened several programs that promote good farming while protecting the environment. For instance, through the Conservation Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, we are forming partnerships with states and with growers to protect water quality, by setting aside land along rivers and streams. As of last month, more than 30 million acres were being protected. And last year, more than 8 million acres were protected under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, although I was disappointed that Congress denied a $100 million increase requested by the President, and actually cut this innovative program by $25 million.

I was also proud to stand up for the ethanol tax exemption when it was under attack in the Congress -- at one point, supplying a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to save it. The more we can make this home-grown fuel a successful, widely-used product, the better-off our farmers and our environment will be.

Similarly, we need to address the challenge of global warming in ways that are market-based, and good for farmers. Certainly, no line of work is more vulnerable to changes in the weather than agriculture. And perhaps no part of our economy has more to gain from serious efforts to reduce global warming. Fortunately, part of the solution can be found right on the farm. We can reduce greenhouse gases through carbon sequestration -- the use of agriculture to suck the carbon out of the air and deposit it into the soil, enriching our farmland and making our air cleaner at the same time. That is why, last month in Buenos Aires, our negotiators won agreement with other nations on a comprehensive approach that we hope will lead to an international consensus on the role agricultural conservation can play in meeting this challenge. In fact, the Chicago Board of Trade is already exploring ways that farmers can profit from emissions trading, by selling carbon credits on the open market.

Of course, with all environmental measures, we must be careful what we ask of farmers. That is why I stepped in to make sure the Food Quality Protection Act was implemented fairly. I wanted to make sure that agriculture maintained a high standard of safety, but in a way that gives farmers a fair transition period, so they are not unfairly penalized.

But there is no question that science and technology are increasingly helping us to produce the food we need as we protect our soil, water, and air for future generations. When I visited Pioneer Hi-Bred out in Iowa last year, I saw first-hand the potential packed into bio-engineered seed. Science now enables us to do everything from growing sturdier crops in harshclimates, to improving our food's nutrition, so we can help ward off everything from common colds to deadly cancers.

Biotechnology -- used sensibly -- can be great benefit to human life. Secretary Glickman has told me about his visit to Dr. Norman Borlaug's international wheat and corn research center in Mexico. That's where they launched the "Green Revolution" that gave us the giant productivity strides of the 1970's. At that center, there's a sign that reads, "a single gene has saved 100 million lives." If we move prudently and safely into the future, that's a crop we can harvest for the good of all humankind.

In closing, let me acknowledge that because our farmers and ranchers are so dependent on the economies of other nations -- because they are so closely tied to the whims of the world's weather patterns -- we can never say with certainty what the future will bring. Anyone who has spent any time on a farm knows that both the beauty and the tragedy of the land is that it follows a rhythm far-removed from Congressional legislation, and far beyond our ability to predict or control.

That is why it is so important to have leadership that is committed not just to the product, but to the process -- leadership that understands what agriculture means to our economy, and to the human spirit. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "the first farmer was the first man, and all historic nobility rests on...use of land."

President Clinton and I are committed to strengthening American agriculture. We are committed to turning around this global economic crisis, to revive consumer demand. And I want you to know that I will always be eager to listen to you and work with you, in pursuit of a goal we share:

To see, in the words of Walt Whitman, "through the ample open door of the peaceful country barn, a sun-lit pasture field, with cattle and horses feeding; and haze, and vista, and the far horizon, fading away." And to realize that for centuries now, that simple horizon has been the foundation of growth, opportunity, and the American dream. In good times and in bad, let's work together to keep American agriculture as strong as it can and must be. Thank you.

Vice President Gore's:
Speech Archive | Home Page

Footer bar icon

[White House] Principals Page[Help Desk]

To comment on this service,
send feedback to the Web Development Team.