Tester, USDA deputy secretary meet with local producers

Billings Gazette

by Zach Benoit

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, held a casual roundtable discussion Saturday afternoon with local food producers, sustainability groups and others invested in local producing.

During the meeting at the Good Earth Market, 3024 Second Ave. N., Tester and Merrigan heard concerns and issues from about a dozen people regarding subsidies, the recently passed Food Safety and Modernization Act, regulation and a wide swath of other topics.

“We’re just going to have a nice little conversation about what’s going on and how we can help local producers, big producers and ag in general,” Tester said.

Merrigan said several times that the USDA is committed to organic food production, which often happens on a local level. She said that includes research on including more organic food in schools, promoting education and working with local officials on organic issues.

“I couldn’t speak more strongly about our commitment to organic,” Merrigan said.
The food safety bill, which passed last November and reformed the nation’s food safety requirements, included an amendment from Tester that kept state and local authorities regulating small businesses and farms marketing products locally.

That bill was a hot topic, as it will likely be re-examined in Washington, D.C., in 2012.

“I think we need to put everything on the table,” Tester said of possible cuts, including budgetary, that could be made.

Merrigan said the meeting, the second of three in Montana cities, presented some tough questions about local agriculture that she’ll take back to her staff in Washington.

“We’ve got a lot of people out there struggling who need some answers,” she said.