The new farm bill, USDA funding for FY2012, U.S. beef exports, free trade agreements and catfish inspections all came up during a Wednesday morning press conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

On a tour to bolster U.S. agriculture trade, Vilsack spoke from Vietnam following a day of meetings. On Thursday, the U.S. delegation will travel to China for even more.

For more see Vilsack on Asian trade deals, promotion programs.

Earlier in the week, the conference committee announced it had come up with USDA fiscal year 2012 funds (see more here). In addition, committee members also inserted language preventing USDA from doing anything further on the GIPSA (Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration) rule and some nutrition standards and school lunch programs.

Backers say the GIPSA rule would prevent livestock producers from being subjected to unfavorable market conditions and rules favored by the packing industry.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to look at the appropriations bill …  but am familiar with (it),” said Vilsack. “Let me make a couple of general comments.

On the nutrition funding “we can assure and reassure the parents of school-aged children that USDA is going to do everything it can to implement the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in a way that encourages and improves nutritional opportunities for children. The language Congress is proposing will not necessarily interfere with that ultimate goal. Our youngsters will have access to more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, more low-fat dairy, less sodium and sugar and fat.”

As for the GIPSA rule, past legislation “encourages and empowers the USDA to ensure a fair marketplace. As I traveled around the country … listening to concerns expressed by producers around the country, it became obvious we need to do more to ensure fair markets.”

For more on GIPSA, see here.

Following the rule proposal, Vilsack said some 66,000 people “weighed in and we always learn from (such) comments. At the request of the (livestock) industry we extended the comment period … and conducted an evaluation. From (those) we learned more and began the process of addressing some of the concerns raised.

“It’s no secret that we sent a proposal to OMB (Office of Management and Budget) that represented a first step in the finalization of that process. It was focused on 2008 farm bill definitions and … a fairer system for poultry producers who we heard loudly and clearly from in Alabama. The hope is always that both sides – both the executive branch and legislative branch – will respect the process.

“If, in fact, we’re being prevented from carrying out our responsibilities, that’s an unfortunate circumstance. But we’ll do whatever Congress allows and authorizes us to do to ensure, as best we can, fair markets.

“I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest we’ll be disappointed if we cannot respond to the concerns expressed by producers across the country. But we’ll continue to work at it and do the best job we can to improve the Packers and Stockyards Act I’ll point out that it’s been 70 years since there’s been meaningful evaluation and changes to (GIPSA). There are a lot of producers who feel” that’s far too long.

Vilsack was also asked about reports that the South Korean parliament is having difficulty ratifying the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) recently passed by Congress. Will the deal have to be renegotiated?

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to speculate on that status of that agreement. I’ll make a couple of general comments.

“First, (South Korea) President Lee is clearly committed to the free trade arrangement that was negotiated. I’m sure he’s working diligently to get his parliament and congress to approve it.

“Second, we understand and appreciate the challenges that trade agreements can present. That was certainly true as (President Obama) used his goodwill with Congress and the agricultural community, in particular, weighed in to encourage members of our Congress who had questions and concerns, to ultimately ratify or approve these agreements…

“I am confident we’ll have a free trade arrangement with (South) Korea. And when we do it’ll be one beneficial to agriculture.”