Help for swine and dairy producers, climate change, rural economic development and health care were just some of the topics addressed by US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during a forum at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, on Wednesday.
"We appreciate the plight of dairy farmers," admitted Vilsack. But, he pointed out that since funds have dried up there is little he can do until the next fiscal year. "When that happens we'll respond as best we can. We also hope to come up with some long-term solutions," he added.
"The stress on the pork industry is complicated by the H1N1," he continued. "The media keep talking about it, which doesn't help." He said 38 countries have stopped buying US pork due to the perceived threat of H1N1. "We are working to reduce that number and Korea is back and Russia has lifted their ban."
It was no surprise that health care was a hot topic. "Regardless of where you stand, we can not maintain the status quo. We have to reform health care in this country," declared Vilsack. One reason he cited is that 22% of those living in communities of less than 2,500 do not have insurance coverage. "They don't go to the doctor until they get sick and then they go to the emergency room. That's the most expensive care you can get. The cost is shifted to those who can pay."
Another hot button among farmers and ranchers is the proposed cap and trade bill. Mike Versteeg, a young swine producer from Inwood, Iowa, said, "I plan to be around a long time and I can run my farm better than the government can rut it. Do not pass the cap and trade bill."
He added that he now spends around $2,400 per month for electricity. "I'm not making money now. If this passes and I have to pay 30%-40% more for electricity, that will make it even worse."
"Climate change is real, but there is a lot of misunderstanding out there," noted Vilsack. "Alaska and Colorado, for example, are experiencing significant impact due climate change."
He added that there is a lot of expectation around the world for the US to take a leadership role in this issue. Vilsack noted that the conclusion of a USDA study on the impact of the bill on farmers and ranchers is that "over the long haul it will be a net increase in income for farmers and ranchers. We need people to understand the opportunities out there. I am confident we can innovate our way through this."
Farmers in the audience were interested in the recent announcement regarding debt restructuring. "There are two parts to our loan programs – direct operating loans and loan guarantees," explained Vilsack. "The first thing we did was stop the foreclosure process to see if these loans could be restructured with lower interest rates, payment deferrals and reduced principle. The message is we want to work with you," said Vilsack.
In addition, the Secretary said USDA is working with commercial banks. "We explain that it does them no good to lose a borrower and we encourage them to try to restructure debt instead of foreclosure."
Vilsack's Rural Tour forum at the Iowa State Fair, which was attended by around 200 people, is the 15th of such events he has conducted. He is scheduled to lead Rural Tour events with other top administration officials in Missouri, New Mexico, and Ohio.
"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 USDA can better serve these communities."