"Farmers, rice millers, cotton ginners, oilseed processors, and others throughout the chain are feeling the pinch," she said.
But, quoting from Mississippi author William Faulkner's Nobel Prize acceptance speech that "man will not only endure; he will prevail," Veneman said farmers and this region "will prevail Û you are creative and resilient folks."
A new global marketplace and new technologies "are creating tremendous opportunities for agriculture," she said, and the Delta "will be on the cutting edge of taking advantage of these new opportunities."
But while Veneman's address centered on optimism for a bright future for U.S. agriculture, she nonetheless acknowledged that times are pretty tough right now.
"There is no doubt that the combined support provided by the farm bill and the supplemental assistance bills have kept many producers from going under during this downturn."
It's likely, she said, that "additional assistance" to farmers will be provided by the government this year.
Planted area for soybeans this year is expected to be the highest ever, she noted, with cotton the second highest since 1962, despite the lowest prices for those crops in the last 25 years.
"This raises some serious questions," Veneman said.
"Our goal in the upcoming farm policy debate will be to craft a sound and fair farm safety net. But we have to be sure that any element of that safety net might not itself be a part of the problem."
U.S. farm policy, she said, "must be capable of addressing both short term problems as well as long term challenges. Agriculture policy for the 21st century should be one that can respond to the rapidly changing structure of global markets. It should help farmers to compete in global markets and to recognize the interdependency of all the links of the food chain and other sectors of the American economy.
"I know how important this new farm policy is going to be to Mid-South farmers," Veneman said, noting that agriculture provides 18 percent of all jobs in the Delta states, employing some 925,000 people, and generating crops and livestock valued at $10 billion in 1999, of which $2 billion came from exports.
U.S. agriculture "needs to be clear" which forces are driving change, she said, "so we can develop policies and programs that are responsive and appropriate not only to current conditions, but also to the challenges that lie ahead."
The various links of the food chain "are more intertwined than they've ever been," he noted, and "cutting edge technology Û whether biotech seeds, satellite imagery, or the use of E-commerce to buy and sell products, is as much a fact of life on the farm as it is in Silicon Valley."
American ag exports are expected to top $53 billion this year, Veneman said, and 60 percent of that will be in high value processed products, exports of which continue to grow faster than those of raw commodities."
Although the current U.S. trade position is strong, she said, "we must constantly strive to increase our access to global markets.
"Key competitors such as Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Australia, and the European Union are expanding production, adopting new technologies, and aggressively lowering costs while increasing output. They aren't sitting still, but are pushing ahead to meet growing consumer demand around the globe. We'll have to work very hard in the coming years to keep up."
At the same time the new farm bill is under development, Veneman said, "we're pushing forward with new multi-lateral trade negotiations. The opening of new markets is immensely important for the future of U.S. agriculture."
The Bush Administration is working to negotiate new regional trade agreements and to open new international markets, she said, "but we will need help from Congress to pass trade promotion support. There is no better way to help U.S. agriculture than to expand the markets in which our products can be sold. With 96 percent of the world's population outside the U.S., that clearly leaves a lot of room for us to grow our sales."
Secretary Veneman, whose trip to the South included stops at Memphis and Stuttgart, Ark., turned her portion of the Delta Council program into an impromptu swearing-in ceremony for Desoto County, Miss., farmer/legislator William Hawks, who had just been confirmed by President Bush as USDA Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Affairs.
"Bill Hawks has helped to foster an atmosphere of teamwork and innovation at USDA and I'm pleased to have him working with us."
She also paid tribute to the "strong presence" of Dyersburg, Tenn. native Hunt Shipman, former agricultural assistant to Sen. Thad Cochran, R.-Miss., who will be deputy undersecretary of farm and international affairs for USDA.
An estimated 1,500 people attended the annual meeting, representing agriculture, business, and government from the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties that make up the council's membership.