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Secretary Vilsack Arrives in Philippines for U.S. Trade Mission

On Saturday, I arrived in the Philippines for the first-ever USDA trade mission in Southeast Asia. The Philippines is a key market in the region for U.S. agricultural exports, with sales of over $1.77 billion in 2008, a record high, while U.S. agricultural imports from the Philippines reached $ 1.24 billion during the same period.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to learn more about the efforts of IRRI in addressing global food security through rice research. IRRI was established in 1960 and is the largest non-profit agricultural research center in Asia and is known as the home of the Green Revolution in Asia.

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, Philippines Secretary of Agriculture Yap and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney planting rice at the International Rice Research Institute

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, Philippines Secretary of Agriculture Yap and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney planting rice at the International Rice Research Institute

For over three decades, the U.S. Government (USG) has been a major supporter of IRRI through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the coordinating organization through which funds for international agricultural research are administered to the 15 CGIAR centers around the globe.The USG has long viewed IRRI as a cornerstone of CGIAR because of the enormous contribution of rice to global food security, especially in Asia. IRRI is also a beneficiary of USDA and USAID support.

Today I spoke at the Trade Investment Mission on behalf of the USDA. USDA Trade and Investment Missions (TIMs) target emerging markets and free trade agreement (FTA) countries to promote two-way trade and investment. The mission provides U.S. participants with focused one-on-one meetings with host country business representatives. The mission also helps to identify business opportunities and address trade barriers. More than 20 U.S. agribusiness companies will participated in today’s TIM.

Before embarking on two site visits in the afternoon, I met with Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Yap. During our meeting I announced plans for $8.5 million in international assistance under USDA’s Food for Progress Program for the Philippines in the aftermath of recent typhoons that have caused severe flooding in the country.

In the afternoon, I visited the Universal Robina Corporation’s (URC) Flour Milling Plant. The URC facility is only one of two fully automated flour milling plants in the Philippines. The URC Flour Division is one of the top flour millers in the Philippines and approximately 95 percent of all wheat used in this facility is from the United States.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with students at Sagad Elementary School

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with students at Sagad Elementary School

After my visit to the URC Flour Milling Plant, I traveled to Sagad Elementary School to deliver food to students who had been affected by the recent natural disasters in the region. I leave tomorrow for China where I will attend a meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) to discuss agricultural trade.

Deputy Under Secretary Praises Entrepreneurship by National FFA Students

I just returned from Indianapolis and my first National FFA Convention.  Having missed the first 82 of them, I figured it was about time to see what these folks were up to.  I grew up in a part of northern New Jersey where there was no active FFA presence and where 4-H existed to help the wealthier suburban kids who actually got ponies for Christmas learn how to care for them.

I learned to appreciate FFA while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, where the partnership with the state FFA leadership is very strong.  I was blown away to learn that the largest FFA chapter in the State actually is at W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia. I have been to the state FFA convention and often sent others to the national convention, but I’d never seen it with my own eyes.

Picture 46,000 high school and college age students, about the same number that you would find at a major land grant university, all wearing blue jackets, all polite, all committed to this nation and to agriculture.  It was an exciting, empowering experience.

My main reason for going was to speak to ag-entrepreneurship winners and their families.  About a hundred FFA members, their families and sponsors were there.  Each winner had found some unique way to start a small business or develop an operation.  I’m proud that USDA Rural Development is a sponsor of this competition.

What I told the group was that my favorite animal is a turtle.  If you walk into my office or into my home you will see likenesses of turtles everywhere.  It’s because I was told as a girl that, like the turtle, if you don’t stick your neck out every once in awhile, you’ll never get anyplace.

My primary message to these bright, young students was to find an issue that makes you passionate and go for it.  Become a leader, but be someone who can motivate those around you.  A leader without followers is just someone going for a walk.

Finally, I told them about an exciting new program which Congress put into the new Farm Bill and is enthusiastically supported by Secretary Vilsack and by those of us here at Rural Development:  It is the Microentrepreneurship Assistance Program.  What we’re going to do is select non-profit intermediaries and provide them with funds that they can loan to people who want to start a business.  It’s perfect for the members of the FFA.  The amount to be lent is no more than $50,000 per applicant.  All the details about the program were posted in the October 7th edition of the Federal Register.  If you want to find out more or comment on the program, that’s the place to go.

You know, walking around Indianapolis and seeing all of these great young Americans from Hawaii to Puerto Rico and Florida to Alaska, all together, all motivated, gives me a great feeling, not just about agriculture and its future, but in the future of America.  Trust me, it won’t be another 83 years before I attend my next FFA convention.

Cheryl L. Cook, Deputy Under Secretary