WASHINGTON –Mike Johanns says he will make a case for the bargain U.S. consumers receive from farm programs as he begins to travel the country as the nation’s 28th secretary of agriculture.

Speaking at his first new conference since being sworn in as secretary, Johanns said his career as an attorney and politician in Nebraska after growing up on an Iowa dairy farm has given him the opportunity to see things from the consumers’ point of view.

“This weekend my wife Stephanie and I walked into a couple of grocery stores in this part of the world in Washington,” Johanns said. “We were able to walk down aisles fully stocked with affordable foods, all kinds of foods, a tremendous array of foods, entirely safe.

“And I will also share with you that as an American consumer I spend less of my disposable income on feeding myself and my wife and my family than just about any other place in the world.”

Johanns was responding to a question about how USDA could better get the message out that U.S. consumers spend less on farm programs than most think. The issue is taking on added importance because of talk about cuts in ag spending.

Johanns, who resigned as Nebraska’s governor to take the USDA post, noted that the Agriculture Departments spends far more on nutrition programs (about 55 percent of the USDA budget) than for ag programs and that agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service also receive a larger share.

“Certainly, we invest some at the national level,” he said. “But I think if we can help consumers recognize that this investment allows them to be consumers of some of the best and safest products in the world – and to spend less of their disposable income on those products – then I think we’re making the right case to show that this is a good investment.

Johanns said he believes American agriculture has a remarkable story.

“I believe our farmers and ranchers are second to none,” he said. “The men and women across this country who have chosen that for their life just get more and more productive and more and more efficient.”

The new secretary said he will also use the personal relations he has development on numerous trade missions to Japan while he was Nebraska’s governor to help reopen that country to U.S. exports of beef.

“As we have worked with countries on the science-based approach to testing, country after country has reopened their borders to U.S. beef,” he said. “Now we’re really anxious to sign an agreement with Japan, and I have every reason to believe we can do that.”

In response to another question, Johanns said he has not made any decisions on members of his immediate staff. There have been reports that J.B. Penn, undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, and Dale Moore, chief of staff for outgoing secretary Ann M. Veneman, would stay on at least for a while.

But Johanns said he was not prepared to make any announcements about those positions.

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