Vilsack tours Montana; meets ag leaders, producers

The Prairie Star

by Terri Adams

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Montana at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana.

He flew in from California on Friday, March 5 and spent the entire day of March 6 touring the state, visiting with leaders of agriculture organizations and meeting one-on-one with Montana producers.

“We had a full, full day with him,” said Tester. “It went very well.”

To start their day, Vilsack shared a morning breakfast meeting in Helena.
During that meeting Bob Hanson, Montana Farm Bureau Federation president and a White Sulphur Springs rancher, had the opportunity to discuss issues of concern with Vilsack, Tester and other ag producers and industry leaders.

“At the beginning of the breakfast meeting they asked what we, who were representing agriculture groups across the state, would recommend U.S. Department of Agriculture should be working on in Montana. The response from everyone was unanimous – brucellosis, pine bark beetles and predators,” Hanson said.
Hanson was pleased with the group discussion.

“One issue was allowing us to aggressively address beetle kill in national forests in Montana, meaning don't create more wilderness that restricts good scientific protocol for caring for our forests. As for the brucellosis issue, I urged Vilsack to talk to USDA-APHIS about implementing a temporary emergency rule to control diseases within the ruminant wildlife population,” explained Hanson.

Vilsack agreed to talk with APHIS in detail about the brucellosis issue and how it's negatively affecting Montana producers.

He also said he was going to take the wolf versus livestock concerns of ranchers back to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. In addition, he would talk to him about using pine bark beetle kill for biomass or other wood products.

Hanson said the breakfast meeting also discussed exports and trade issues, including the passing of three outstanding free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and Korea which could represent roughly $3 billion in new U.S. exports to those countries.

Additionally the group discussed including $10 million in the upcoming 2011 budget to complete the Animal Biosci-ences Facility at Montana State University.

“It was a positive meeting,” said Hanson.

Later on during the day Hanson noted that, “Vilsack talked about the productivity of modern American agriculture and the fact that one farmer feeds 150 people. The fact that Secretary Vilsack took time to have meaningful discussion with agricultural group leaders in Montana is certainly a big step in the right direction.”

Tester added, “The Secretary knows rural America is in crisis and we are working on that, trying to find ways to solve the issues.”

Those issues include depopulation and low economic figures coming out of rural communities.

“Having someone from the administration on the ground in Montana is very good for Montana. They can hear the issues and see the situations firsthand,” he said. One of the situations Vilsack saw firsthand was the damage done by the pine beetle. Tester and Vilsack took an aerial tour of some of the beetle-killed forests between Helena and Deer Lodge.

“There are millions and millions of trees that have been destroyed by the pine beetle and we were able to show him some of that tremendous damage while he was here,” Tester said.

Vilsack oversees the U.S. Forest Service and, during that aerial tour, Tester was also able to visit with him about the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act.

Tester called the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act a “made-in-Montana solution.” He said it will protect communities from crisis on forest land.

The act reduces the risk of forest fire by allowing the harvesting of wood on Forest Service land, especially in those forests infested by the pine beetle. It also requires that the streams and rivers be protected and restored and that recreational lands be preserved.

After their aerial tour, Vilsack and Tester were able to proceed to Bozeman, Mont., where they discussed the Child Nutrition Act and farm-to-school food efforts in Montana.

“We were also able to spend some time talking about the farm-to-college food program, where colleges are able to grow and use fresh produce,” Tester said.

“At 4 p.m. he was at the end of his trip but he turned to me and said, ‘is there some way you can fold a few more things into this trip?' We covered a lot of ground that day, from Helena to Deer Lodge and Bozeman and he heard the gamut of issues. We talked about creating opportunities for rural development and adding value to raw products,” Tester said.

Tester also said they discussed regulations and ways to increase exports from Montana and have better trade agreements with countries.

“His support of Country of Origin labeling was brought up and appreciated. We were able to meet with all the main organizations and with producers individually. Vilsack said some things while he was here that we were looking for him to say,” he said.

Tester said Vilsack had come in from a long, arduous trip before even arriving in Montana, and could have used that as an excuse, but did not.

“We very much appreciate people in his position who are working hard, and he is working hard and looking out for rural America,” he said.

Tester is one of only two farmers in the U.S. Senate, and Vilsack comes from a farming background in Iowa. “Anytime you get someone with his knowledge and his position to come to Montana and see the issues for themselves, it bodes well for all of Montana,” concluded Tester.