WESTMINSTER -- Farmers could prosper this year if markets and the weather cooperate, a former U.S. secretary of agriculture predicts.
"If farmers get a crop, the outlook is reasonably good," said John R. Block, a member of Ronald Reagan's cabinet from 1981 to 1986.
Block spoke Thursday night at the Tri-District Republican Club's annual dinner at the Wakefield Valley Golf Club. About 125 people attended.
Block, 57, who owns a family farm in Illinois and is a former secretary of agriculture in that state, focused on political themes his 25-minute speech, but touched on agricultural issues.
This should be a good year for dairy farmers because milk prices have started to rise, Block said.
"The dairy industry is in good shape because it weathered a period of low prices last year," he said.
Prices should stay high this year because demand remains above supply, he said. More people are eating cheese and other dairy foods, he said.
Grain prices also should be strong because supplies are low worldwide, Block said.
Farmers across America are in better financial shape than they were six years ago, he said.
In 1986, farm debt peaked at $200 billion in the United States. Now it's at $140 billion, he said.
"Farmers turned conservative after the farm recession," said Block, who worked on the 1985 Farm Bill, which helped farmers (( rebound from the recession of the early 1980s.
U.S. agriculture is "the envy of the world," he said, adding that people from around the world come here to see how food is produced and marketed.
"Our supermarkets are the envy of those people," said Block, who now is president of the National American Wholesale Grocers' Association, a trade association in Washington.
As secretary of agriculture, Block visited 30 countries in an effort to open world markets for U.S. products.
Like farmers everywhere, Block is concerned about the weather.
"We need rain," he said.
Block and his father, Julius, 78, and son, Hans, 33, grow corn and soybeans on 3,000 acres in Galesburg, Ill., and raise 12,000 hogs.
Block said he visits the farm once a month and talks with his son daily about the operation.
As president of the grocers' association, Block said, he lobbies in Washington for policies to benefit wholesalers. He has a staff of 35.
He also broadcasts weekly commentaries on agriculture issues on syndicated radio and TV shows.
Thursday's dinner was a fund-raiser for Alan Keyes, a Maryland Republican candidate for a U.S. Senate seat. Tickets were $25.