USDA deputy secretary in Bozeman to discuss how to help farmers

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

by Daniel Person

A deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be in Bozeman Saturday to discuss how her department can help farmers, whether they sell their products to people down the road or across the ocean.

Kathleen Merrigan will give the keynote address at a Small Business Opportunity Workshop hosted by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at Montana   State University.

Merrigan, former manager of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, her office manages the USDA programs that help small farmers bring their products to market.

That includes helping farmers construct hoop-houses to lengthen their growing seasons and helping groups of farmers create food hubs so they can warehouse their produce and sell to large buyers, like schools.

“We’re serving new constituencies at USDA,” she said of the small-farmer programs. “That’s what it takes to reach some of the farmers that may be engaged in regional production.”

Local food production helps economic development in rural communities, since it keeps food dollars within the community, Merrigan said.

“It helps the economy, keeps the local food money at home, it means jobs,” she said.

That said, Merrigan said USDA is also making progress on opening new markets for farmers and ranches who export their produce.

“We’ve got a lot of farmers in Montana who are heavily engaged in the export market. They’re doing really well,” she said. “We had recordbreaking export numbers last year and we forecast that we’ll have an even greater export year for American agriculture in 2011.”

The two panel discussions at Saturday’s workshop will focus on “The Next Generation of Farming” and “Selling to your Neighbor — Local and Regional Marketing.”

In addition, group sessions and other discussions will focus on access to capital, livestock and farming issues, boosting production, risk management and conservation. 

Other speakers will include Ron de Yong, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture; Christian Mackay, executive office of the Montana Department of Livestock; and representatives from the Montana Grain Growers, Montana Farmers Union and other agricultural groups Tester . said in a release that the workshop is part of series of small business meetings that have given “new tools to Montana’s small businesses.”

“Now we’re going to aim those resources at Montana’s No. 1 industry — the farmers and ranchers who are the backbone of our state’s economy. Working together, we’re going to keep pushing to create jobs and put more Montanans to work,” he said.