“USDA understands the difficulty you are having,” was the message USDA Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner delivered to National Pork Producers Council Strategic Investment Program participants at last week's World Pork Expo. “We are using every creative thought we have to help the situation,” he said.

Conner listed USDA’s efforts to help the pork industry weather its current economic storm. “We’re purchasing pork,” he said, referring to the $50 million purchase that USDA promised for federal food programs. He pointed to the fact that approximately 70 percent of USDA's budget goes to feed the needy, with one in five Americans receiving food assistance.

Conner also cited the 24 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program land that USDA released for hay and forage. Conner conceded that it’s not the full solution but “we believe it could be part of a broader solution that will help ease corn demand.”

He added, “We do recognize that there is some hurt out there in the livestock sector, and with 70 percent of pork production's cost going to feed, we know that pork producers are first to get clipped.”

Conner admitted that USDA officials were disappointed in the Farm Bill outcome.  However, he added, “We’re determined to enact and implement the new farm bill, including the mandatory Country of Origin Labeling requirements as of Oct. 1."

Conner assured listeners that USDA is aware that ethanol is a new factor in the high corn prices because it currently uses up to one-third of the corn crop. “Fortunately, we did produce 13 billion bushels of corn in 2007,” he said. Conner appealed to producers to understand that ethanol production is market-driven, and that high crude-oil prices lead to expansion of alternative fuels. “It’s the market that's driving the capacity increase, which is obviously driving corn demand as well.”