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Vilsack continues Rural Tour


RURAL TOUR--U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discuses rural issues during the Rural Forum stop at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa on Aug. 19. (Journal phtot by Jennifer Bremer.)

Recent challenges with economics have affected all sectors of the population in the United States and agriculture is no exception.

On June 30, President Barack Obama launched the Rural Tour in an effort to engage in a more robust dialog with people living in rural America. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has led the tour to visit rural communities in states throughout the country with a stop Aug. 19 at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa.

"To overcome challenges and be successful in a new, 21st century economy, President Obama has asked that we reach out to people in rural communities across the country to listen, learn and facilitate problem solving," said Vilsack. "It is critically important to hear the thoughts, concerns and stories about Iowa's vision for its future and to collect ideas about how U.S. Department of Agriculture can better serve these communities."

Stressed economy

"The reality is that our entire economy is stressed. We need to work together to get back to a more stable economy," said Vilsack.

The government wants to assist communities in making the transition from bad times to better times. Vilsack said the most direct help the new administration has given is through tax cuts.

Building new economic building blocks and finding new markets for products has helped rural communities survive. "We have continually stressed the importance of producing locally and marketing products locally. These types of activities will help rebuild the foundations for a better economy," he said.

Providing low interest loans for farmers and ranchers, stopping foreclosures and refinancing or restructuring loans that USDA controls has been the focus of the USDA, according to Vilsack.

"We have many of the same issues as were seen in the farm crisis of the 1980s," he said. "We don't benefit when people are pushed off the farm."

Livestock producers' struggles

Vilsack said he is aware of the continuing struggles of livestock producers to be profitable--especially dairy and pork producers. He vowed to continue to work for these industries, helping with market access and assistance where needed.

"The pain, stress and difficulty the dairy and pork producers are suffering from is real," he said. "We want to do everything we can to keep these producers in business so they can continue to help feed the world."

USDA has assisted dairy producers by purchasing surplus commodities--providing dairy products for food programs across the country. Milk payments of over $1 billion have been made to assist dairy producers during these hardships.

"While these programs and this assistance has been helpful, we also know that this is not enough to get these producers what they need to have more stable markets," said Vilsack. "We will continue to assist producers to move through these hardships."

Pork producers suffer from red-ink production as well. Exports were driving the pork market until the H1N1 flu outbreak, which led to 38 countries stopping pork imports from the U.S.

Vilsack continues to travel around the world to educate other countries about the safety of the U.S. food system in an effort to reopen trade around the world.

Vilsack said while H1N1 does not have a direct affect on pork itself, the prior name given to that particular strain of the flu had a huge impact on the pork industry.

The USDA has purchased approximately $117 million in pork products for food and nutrition assistance programs this year through its annual appropriation and recovery act funding.

Health care

The hot topic for the government in recent weeks has been health care. One attendee to the Iowa stop asked how the USDA would be helping farmers, ranchers and producers involved in Community Supported Agriculture with economically feasible health care.

"When it comes to health care, status quo is not acceptable," he said.

Nearly one-fourth of people in small towns don't have health insurance coverage, according to Vilsack. "These people stop going to the doctor because they can't afford to and then when it's too late or an emergency, they are going to the ER and getting care that is the most expensive possible," he said. "We need to see a change. People in rural communities end up paying more for insurance coverage and health care, yet have less access to hospitals and clinics."

Vilsack said a reform in health care is needed in order to provide insurance to everyone, including those who are self-employed in farming.

Rural Tour Missouri

President Obama's Rural Tour continued Aug. 20 in Sedalia, Mo., at the State Fair Community College next door to the Missouri State Fairgrounds. Vilsack and Rep. Ike Skelton fielded a variety of questions on rural issues. This was tour stop number 16 on the rural tour.

The first question for Vilsack came from Rep. Skelton who asked what the USDA is doing to increase agricultural exports. Vilsack said USDA works in concert with the U.S. Trade Representatives office to open up opportunities. Currently, there are three pending trade agreements with Panama, Columbia, and South Korea.

"What a lot of folks hear about trade is the deficit, the trade deficit," Vilsack said. "Agriculture does not have a trade deficit, we actually have a trade surplus somewhere between $12 and $13 billion."

Food safety

The next question dealt with food safety and USDA inspection of imported foods, specifically catfish. Vilsack said USDA has two ways to insure that imported foods are safe. First is the equivalency test where USDA inspectors actually go to importing countries, go to facilities that are processing food, and make sure their food safety procedures are equal to or greater than what we would have in the U.S. Second, there are inspectors at the borders that are checking products as they come across the border.

"We are now in the process of trying to modernize our food safety system within the U.S. so that we can identify problems as quickly as possible," Vilsack said.

The subject of imported catfish, Vilsack said is a very complicated issue. Congress recently transferred the responsibility to monitor and inspect catfish from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to USDA. There are hundreds of varieties of catfish--and how USDA defines catfish will determine what can come into this country.

"We have not yet finished that evaluation," Vilsack said.

Forestry restoration

The forestry industry is very important to the Missouri economy. Vilsack was asked to explain exactly what was meant by the "ecological restoration of forested land," specifically how this related to work being done at the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri. He replied ecological restoration was not a term that he has used in terms of forest management.

Vilsack, instead, referred to the impact that forestlands and farmland have on the drinking water supply in this country and emphasized it is important for people to understand that correlation.

"It is also important for Americans to understand the ability of forests to help us adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change," he said. "So what we are looking at is properly maintaining our forests so that we can conserve our water, and that we use forests as a tool to mitigate climate change." Vilsack added there has to be a balance between the commercial interests that are served by the forests and the need to preserve forests in a way that allows us to preserve water resources and adapt to climate change.

One issue, though, is that over the last few years the reserve fund for forest maintenance has been used for fighting forest fires. Vilsack said improperly maintained forests build the fuel supply for potential fires. President Obama has proposed changing the budget so there is separate funding for maintenance and fire fighting.

Cap-and-trade

There were two questions about cap-and-trade legislation. The first questioner wanted to know what effect cap-and-trade legislation would have on an energy-intensive industry like agriculture and the second wanted to know what role the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would play in determining offsets in a cap-and-trade system.

Referring to the bill that was passed by the House of Representatives, Vilsack said the fertilizer industry would receive some assistance and benefits in the early years of the process. In the first 7 to 10 years of this effort there should not be any increase in the cost of fertilizer because of the benefits that industry will get from the bill, according to Vilsack.

"On the energy side, I don't think there is any doubt that there will be an increase; the question is whether or not there will be an offsetting income opportunity that will be equal to or greater than the new energy costs," Vilsack said. "Livestock producers will find more opportunities than they think."

On the second question, Vilsack said the House of Representatives, and Congressman Colin Peterson, in particular, knew it was important for USDA to be involved in a meaningful way in terms of establishing offset programs. Vilsack said EPA's role in the process is based on a Supreme Court case that created the capacity of the EPA to regulate tailpipe emissions. This places EPA in a position to regulate activities in rural communities across the country.

"USDA will work with other federal agencies to make sure that agriculture is adequately represented and that the facts are accurate," Vilsack said.

Vilsack is scheduled to lead Rural Tour events with a variety of other top administration officials over the coming weeks and months in Zanesville, Ohio; Scottsbluff, Neb.; and Las Cruces, N.M. Rural listening sessions have also been held in Hamlet, N.C.; Bethel, Alaska; St. John Parish, La.; Blairs, Va.; West Salem, Wis.; Charlotte, Mich.; Concord, N.H.; Wattsburg, Pa.; Danville, Ind.; Geneseo, Ill.; Harrodsburg, Ky.; Ludowici, Ga.; Portageville, Mo.; Brush, Colo.; and Modesto, Calif.

"America's farmers continue to adapt to whatever they have to as times change," said Vilsack. "We have to control our own destiny."

For more information on the Rural Tour visit www.ruraltour.gov.

Jennifer Bremer can be reached by phone at 515-833-2120, or by e-mail at jbremer@hpj.com. Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by e-mail at richhpj@aol.com.



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