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Published February 23, 2010, 08:45 AM

Vilsack appears with Peterson in Minnesota

MARSHALL, Minn. — In Minnesota’s 7th District, agriculture is dominated by corn, soybeans, turkeys and sugar beets, but it is the “local foods” issue — organic vegetables, fruit and grass-fed beef — that brought Tom Vilsack for his first visit as agriculture secretary.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MARSHALL, Minn. — In Minnesota’s 7th District, agriculture is dominated by corn, soybeans, turkeys and sugar beets, but it is the “local foods” issue — organic vegetables, fruit and grass-fed beef — that brought Tom Vilsack for his first visit as agriculture secretary.

A frozen, snow-blown turf welcomed Vilsack to Marshall, Minn., as Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, hosted his third annual Home Grown Economy conference, focusing on food production.

The two agricultural policy luminaries ladled praise each other and pledged support for smaller farms that produce organic and other crops for local markets — a segment of the agricultural economy that is seen as a small but growing opportunity.

Peterson calls Vilsack the most able federal manager he’s ever met and says he has lunch with the secretary every week or two to make sure the department and his committee are working more effectively together.

For Vilsack, local foods is a high priority and an issue that resonates both for the economic multiplier effects, but also for anti-obesity and national health concerns of the Obama administration in which he serves.

Peterson, an architect or defender of conventional farm support programs for conventional agriculture, says he supports the local foods movement and “any kind of agriculture that makes economic sense.”

Any kind of ag

“There’s room for everybody in agriculture — we need them all,” Peterson says. “This is not one against another.”

Peterson says there is tremendous interest around the country in local food and acknowledges the value of Vilsack’s “Know your farmer, know your food” initiatives. He says the reality of the market is evident when companies like Wal-Mart include local food sections. Peterson says he set up a new horticulture and organic subcommittee for the House Agriculture Committee to address the policy area.

Both Vilsack and Peterson lament that obesity is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States — ahead of smoking, Vilsack notes — costing $147 billion annually in health costs.

“One of the challenges we’ve focused our external (research) partners on is the issue of how we get young people in particular to want to eat wholesome and nutritious foods,” Vilsack says. “You can have the greatest salad bar in the world, but if there is another choice that youngsters have that, for whatever reason they find more delectable for because of marketing or advertising or whatever, they’re going to potentially choose that alternative.

“What can we do, not only to make these foods more nutritious, but as importantly, how do we make it the preferred choice.”

Federal policy shifts

Vilsack points to reauthorization of the School Breakfast and School Lunch programs, which may include incentives to “make choices locally” and influences more consumption of fruits and vegetables.

He says a series of programs from USDA’s Rural Development agency must be redirected. One of the first things he did as secretary was to ask what the Business and Industry loan program, with $950 million in annual authority, had been used for.

“What I found was that we were spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on building convenience stores and hotels,” Vilsack says. “Certainly that’s important to have, but the reality is that it’s a great place to drive through and maybe you want to spend a night or two, but where is the investment in creating a life in rural America? Where do people who don’t have access to a grocery store access fruits and vegetables that have been locally grown? It’s not going to be in a convenience store. You’re lucky if you can find a banana there.

“With all due respect to convenience stores,” Vilsack says, “that’s not enough.”

He says convenience store jobs aren’t high-paying jobs and tend to sell processed foods.

“And they certainly aren’t going to be necessarily supportive of the local economy,” he says.

Recovery involvement

While in Marshall, Vilsack announced $144 million in loan guarantees nationwide under the American Recovery and Reinvestment act. Two were in the 7th District.

Anderson Seed Co. of Mentor, Minn., received a $975,000 guarantee on its expansion project for sunflower birdfood and kernel production. Kay’s Processing of Clara City, Minn., received a $700,000 guarantee for its snack food operation.

Vilsack says he’s directed the Rural Development agencies to be more aggressive in seeking potential loan recipients.

Local processing, owned by local co-ops of farmers providing produce to the co-op, is a better opportunity for better-paying jobs than the alternative, he says. Using federal dollars to support that kind of agriculture is important for energy policy, food production, health, national security and rural values.

Vilsack says that, in the past five years, the country lost 80,000 farms in the category of more than $10,000 in sales and less than $500,000 in sales.

He took a swipe at the previous administration for putting off tough decisions, including putting off a decision to “protect the brand” for organic agriculture.

After languishing for five years under the Bush administration, his department recently announced rules to enforce standards that require minimum of 120 days of pasturing requirements for dairy herds to qualify as organic.

“That’s not the way I deal,” Vilsack says of the delays, adding, “When people are paying that premium, and people are marketing that brand, they have something to market.”

Among other things, he says it’s important for organic farmers to access USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program funds as they decide to make the transition into organic farming.

“We need to do a better job of rural development,” he says, noting that it is “important to the country, folks, and goes far beyond the economics we’re talking about here, in my opinion.”