Ag chief hears out Montana ranchers

The Helena Independent Record

by Eve Byron

These are tough times for rural America, noted Tom Vilsack, head of the federal Department of Agriculture, who told a group of ranchers and farmers gathered for breakfast at Bennie’s Bistro in Helena that he’s aware of their troubles and wants to help find solutions.

Flanked at the table by Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Vilsack said the Obama administration knows that the rural population is aging and has a high level of poverty and unemployment. He understands that rural populations are dwindling, leaving fewer people to produce the food and other farm and ranch products consumed by the rest of the nation.

“You are responsible for what we are eating here today,” he added, munching on a frittata and seven-grain scones that Bistro owner Margaret Corcoran tries to create using locally grown produce. “Everybody’s been focused on the economy for the last few years because everybody’s felt the pain … but difficult times are nothing new for those in rural America.”

The 20 producers sitting at the breakfast table nodded their heads in agreement. Most of the hand-picked groups represented organizations affected by policies set through the Department of Agriculture, like woolgrowers, cattlemen and stockgrowers, and they were eager to share their frustrations with Vilsack.

Not surprisingly, brucellosis was a concern of many, as were the dwindling export markets and the increased wolf population. Maggie Howley with the Montana Agri-Women added that the long list of government rules, coupled with the elements, also presents difficulties.

“Excessive regulations, along with weather and disease and so forth that farmers have always fought, makes the burden so heavy,” Howley said, adding that her organization has watched European farming communities declining for similar reasons. “Just weigh those things so we don’t end up as they do. We look across the ocean and see problems.”

Krista Lee Evans, executive director of the Montana Agricultural Business Association, added that their most important issue is better cooperation among federal agencies.

“I ask for your help in working with other agencies, like the Department of Interior, to ensure that regulations that are imposed are analyzed for their cumulative impacts and how that impacts the abilities of ag producers in Montana,” Evans said. “We are not opposed to regulation as long as it’s fair and based on sound science.”

As each producer spoke, Vilsack took notes. Afterward, he addressed some of the points raised, and said he would do his best to provide additional assistance whenever possible.

Vilsack noted that various grants and loan programs, as well as technical aid, are available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and suggested producers look into those. He added that the USDA is promoting local consumption of local products as well as trying to work with other countries to enhance export opportunities.

“We’re trying to set up regional and local food chains,” Vilsack said. “…We’re also cognizant and aware of the need for exports.”

He works closely with Ken Salazar, the head of the Department of Interior, Vilsack said, and he’s also trying to facilitate better communication with the Environmental Protection Agency and others that have impacts on the agricultural communities.

“I would like to get major commodity groups together so we can set up a dialogue with EPA officials and establish relationships,” Vilsack said. “I don’t know if it would do any good to get into a public spat about things … a public dispute says there’s no relationship; it’s a power play and you get bad results.”

Vilsack added that he’s not very familiar with the impacts caused by wolves and the involvement of the USDA’s own Wildlife Services agency, but he’ll look into that further when he returns to Washington, D.C. Wildlife Services is tasked with controlling predators that prey on livestock, which these days has switched focus from coyotes and foxes to wolves, to the dismay of some agricultural organizations. They’re asking for additional funding for Wildlife Services so it can add personnel on the ground.

“I don’t know much about this, but I’m going to find out about it. I suspect a lot of it is in Interior’s realm, but I will convey to Ken Salazar what you’ve said,” Vilsack said. “I’ll make sure my friend knows the issue isn’t going well and the producers say they’re suffering economic harm.”

He added that his department also is well aware of the problems posed by the mountain pine beetle, which has killed millions of trees across the West. After the breakfast, he was on his way to fly over the Helena and Beaverhead/Deerlodge national forests, which have been particularly hard hit.

“Frankly, I don’t know anybody has the answer on how this is going to work out,” Vilsack said.  "But we have to figure out if there’s some opportunity here that we’re missing — maybe biomass or energy production. There may be opportunities to clear out a lot of that stuff and use it in a productive manner.”