WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-AR), ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, released the following opening remarks, as prepared, at the hearing to consider the nominations of Jose Emilio Esteban, Ph.D. to be undersecretary for food safety, Vincent Logan to serve as a member of the Farm Credit Administration and Alexis Taylor to be undersecretary of agriculture for trade and foreign agricultural affairs.
Good morning. Today we meet to hear from Dr. Jose Emilio Esteban, President Biden’s nominee to serve as the undersecretary for food safety; Mr. Vincent Garfield Logan, the president’s nominee to serve as a member of the Farm Credit Administration Board; and Ms. Alexis Taylor, the president’s nominee to serve as the undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs. I congratulate you all on your nominations and thank you for your willingness to serve the public. I would also like to specifically recognize Ms. Taylor and express my gratitude for her service in the U.S. Army, which included a deployment to Iraq.
While each nominee independently will, if confirmed, have a significant impact upon their agencies, collectively these three nominees will have a sizeable impact on all of agriculture. From the credit farmers and ranchers depend upon, to the opportunities existing and new export markets provide our producers, to ensuring that our meat and poultry supply is wholesome and safe, these nominees are being asked to lead some of the most consequential agencies affecting agriculture.
It has become a common refrain that the pandemic stressed our agricultural sector in ways that most of us have never experienced. Since then, we have seen the impacts of inflation, supply chain disruptions and the war in Ukraine on agriculture. The Farm Credit Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service have all been at the forefront of confronting these challenges. These nominees face much different conditions than their predecessors did.
Briefly, I would like to touch on a few issues that concern me in each nominee’s areas of responsibility.
For farm credit: U.S. farm debt is projected to reach a record high of nearly $500 billion in 2022, up five percent from last year and up nearly 70 percent from a decade ago.
Due to rapidly increasing interest rates, farm interest expenses related to servicing record-high farm debt are expected to increase by $7.5 billion to a record $26 billion, the largest increase of all time and up nearly 40 percent from last year. In addition to increasing interest expenses in 2022, the record-high increase in farm production expenses is expected to persist in 2023, making the costs of borrowing and capitalizing farm production efforts such as the upcoming spring planting season even more expensive.
On food safety: ensuring the safety of the U.S. food supply is of the utmost importance and one of the most crucial functions performed by USDA. Reliance on science and data have historically been the cornerstones of our country’s food safety regulation, and it should remain so. I am interested in knowing more about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) recent declaration of Salmonella as an adulterant in certain poultry products and hope to get a better understanding of USDA’s future plans with regard to Salmonella regulation.
Separately, I was critical of USDA’s shift on line speeds in the pork industry. Poultry processors are also facing uncertainty on this front. Sudden changes in our regulatory system such as this have significant consequences for producers, the food supply, and consumer’s food prices.
And, finally, but extremely important, trade: ensuring market access abroad for our farmers and ranchers, while keeping other countries honest as they supply our markets is critical for U.S. agriculture and the U.S. economy. Up until recently, ag trade was one of the few contributors towards a positive trade balance – we need to return to ag being a net exporter.
Farmers and ranchers across the U.S. do not know what this administration’s trade goals or plans are to expand market access for their family farms. I have confidence that Ms. Taylor and Mr. McKalip, the nominee to serve as the chief agricultural negotiator for the Office of the United States Trade Representative have the skills and abilities to help our producers, but I do question if they will be receiving the support they need from the White House.
I have met with each nominee prior to this morning, and I believe we had informative, positive conversations. I look forward to today’s hearing and again thank our nominees for their willingness to serve.
Before I close, I would like to raise a different matter, but one that is just as important to me as the issues we will discuss today.
Recently USDA announced the closure of a cotton classing facility in Dumas, Arkansas. The closure results in the termination of upwards of 200 seasonal jobs in this small Delta town, where poverty is abundant and jobs are scarce, is especially concerning. Currently, their contributions to the Dumas economy will be permanently lost without immediate action.
I appreciate that the Deputy Secretary recently met with the Mayor of Dumas. I also appreciate that USDA is ensuring that senior leadership will meet with the community to better understand the impact of the closure of the classing facility.
I think the single most significant step USDA could take to help this community and further its goals on equity would be to maintain its presence in Dumas and ensure that the seasonal employees have jobs to return to. It would be more effective than any loan or grant the Department could make to the community.
I look forward to the testimony of the nominees before us today, thank you Chairwoman Stabenow.