Vilsack “town hall” @ Iowa State Fair

UPDATE: Here's the Radio Iowa story and audio from the event.

U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor, is due to appear soon here at the show ring where State Fair champions are sold.  Bleachers are arranged around the small show ring, and air conditioning is keeping us comfortable.  At about 9:40 Vilsack arrived and was greeted by applause from the crowd.  Vilsack, wearing a long-sleeved shirt, jeans and what we in the press section believe to be cowboy boots, is standing as Congressman Leonard Boswell (D-Des Moines) delivers an introduction.

Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge who farmed with her husband in Albia and served for eight years as Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture gets to make a few introductory remarks.  "True Iowans just can't stay away from the Fair," Judge joked, before adding she hopes to "make sure before (Vilsack) leaves he has a corn dog and  pork chop on a stick.  I've seen him do it before, so I know he can do it."

Judge the turned to serious subjects, recounting the work she and Vilsack did during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s (she was a mediator; he was an attorney in Mt. Pleasant who represented farm families going through foreclosure).

"We know we've got some problems," Judge said of modern-day woes on the farm, mentioning the struggles of the pork industry.  "…Unfortunately the pork producers are not alone in this sitiuation.  Dairy producers are also struggling."

Judge asked Vilsack to review and approve disaster aid requests. "We've had some bad weather in the past few weeks," Judge said.  "…We need your help.  We're glad you're here."

Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey is next on the list.  Northey praised Vilsack for his work when a new strain of the flu emerged and Northey said Vilsack was "very instrumental in trying to change the name to H1N1."

Northey also mentioned the concerns about the dairy industry. "We've lost about 39 dairy producers in the last 3 and a half months," Northey said.  Northey made an appeal for disaster aid, and ethanol's expansion in the marketplace.

"We appreciate your accessibility," Northey said.  "…We're looking forward to that creativity."

Next up:  Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. "Tom, I trust this is the largest number of introductions you've had in the past few days," Miller began and the crowd laughed.  Vilsack did, too.  "He's the ideal person for this position and he's done a great job already," Miller said.  "We're very, very proud that he's the ag secretary."

Iowa Secretary of State Michael Mauro is next, telling the crowd he had been in teh room last year for the sale of champions. "Hopefully none of us will be auctioned off today," he joked, and the crowd laughed.  "…We're proud to have Tom Vilsack as our secretary of agriculture."

Boswell got back behind the microphone, recognizing Vilsack's wife, former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack, who was sitting in the crowd.  "This dear lady brought you to Iowa," Boswell said.  "We're proud of that."  The crowd applauded her.

Vilsack is now.  "We celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary last night," Vilsack began.  "It's a little troublesome because I keep asking for a long term contract and I only get a one-year extension."  The crowd laughed.

Vilsack lauds all the folks who introduced him.  "We're very, very fortunate to have a state ag secretary who is not only respected in this state but is respected around the country," Vilsack said.  (Vilsack, by the way, is a Democrat, praising Northey, who is a Republican. The rest of the people who spoke were Democrats.)

"I had the same flashback (as Mauro)…Eight times I was in the (state fair celebrity) steer show….But It was great fun, but I was always happy to get here (to this show ring for the sale of the steers) because I knew it was the end of the steer show," Vilsack said.

Vilsack told the child he'd "The president directed me to begin these rural tours…In the last couple of weeks I've been to Africa and Alaska and everywhere in between," Vilsack said. 

"…We fully appreciate what the congressman said about the struggles of our dairy farmers," Vilsack said, recounting a letter he got from a woman in Council Bluffs in his first term as governor.  The woman's husband, a pork producer, was so distraut over their financial situation that he committed suicide.  Vilsack said he recently learned a dairy farmer in California committed suicide because of the current financial situation in the industry.

"So this is real.  The pain is real.  The stress and difficulty is real…We've taken a number of steps, but we realize there is more to be done," Vilsack said. 

Vilsack said USDA experts are trying to come up with a "long term" solution to the woes in the dairy industry.

Next, Vilsack addressed the financial plight of the pork industry..

"It has been complicated by the H1N1…and the media's continued reference to H1N1 as swine flu," Vilsack said.  

Vilsack outlined USDA actions as well as Obama administration attempts to reopen foreign markets that closed to US pork imports..

"We are cognizant of the need for help," Vilsack said. 

Vilsack outlined the federal economic stimulus package. "The reality is the entire economy is stressed and the president is aware of that….Folks are struggling out there," Vilsack said.

Vilsack ended his opening remarks by talking about economic development in rural America, then opened it up for questions.

The first question came from Craig Lang, Iowa Farm Bureau president, who congratulated the Vilsacks on becoming grandparents.  Lang then asked Vilsack to talk about the program, part of the economic stimulus package, that helps farmers restructure their loans.

"We don't benefit if we force somebody off the farm," Vilsack said. 

Next week, Vilsack said the USDA will host a conference call with all the commercial banks that get USDA loan guarantees.  Vilsack said he'll try to "jawbone" the bankers to restructure farm loans.  Vilsack said his message would be: "work with us to get these restructured."

Another man in the crowd stood to ask a question, but introduced his family first.  He asked his 10 children to stand.  The crowd clapped. "If I were you, I'd introduce your lovely wife first," Vilsack quipped.  The crowd laughed again.

Vilsack then talked about boosting resources for the beginning farmer programs.  

Next question is about monopolies in ag industries.  "What can we do to enforce these antitrust laws?" the man asked.

"The Farm Bill directed us to take a look at the rules & regulations of marketing particularly in the livestock area," Vilsack said.  "…We're going to try to make sure the rules are fair."

Vilsack said the USDA and DOJ will have a series of public hearings in January of next year on the topic.

Next up, a Washington County, Iowa pork producer.  "We're in problems because we've done too damn good a job," he said.  "…We really are doing our best to survive…but we have to get through the next year."  The man mentioned some trade issues with Canada.

Vilsack mentioned conversation he had with Canadian officials about pork industry issues.  "Our view is that consumers in this country are very interested in where their food comes from…We see this as consumer information.  They see it as trade distorting," Vilsack said.  "…It's a fine line between subsidizing agriculture…and providing assistance and help."

Vilsack then addressed the efficiency issue, talking about a recent trip to a Kenyan farmer who is working a farm that's an eighth of an acre.  Then Vilsack launches into the debate China and the US is having over pork and poultry imports (mentioning the congressional hold that is on Chinese poultry imports into the US). 

"The issues of trade are extraordinarily complex," Vilsack said, adding he is trying to get trade partners address the "whole totality of our relationship" rather than engage in "tit for tat" conversations about specific trade items.  "….Let's look at the whole totality of our relationship and try to solve.  tit for tat conversation.

Gary Lamb, a leader in the Iowa Farmers Union, asks a question, advocating "a new policy and a new direction in farm programs."  (I was posting during Vilsack's answer and didn't transcribe his answer.)

Next up, a dairy farmer from Pella. "I think there's a bright future for dairy.  I think we've started to turn the corner," he said to Vilsack, addiing he wanted to be "positive" and say he was a young person who got into dairy farming in 2000.

Vilsack says the goal is to preserve hers, as liquidation is harmful in the long term.  "It is going to be tough and we're going to try to be there as best we can," Vilsack concluded.

Next up, a Denise O'Brien (2006 Democratic nominee for Iowa Ag Secretary) who has been farming for 33 years in western Iowa and sold their dairy herd a few years ago.  They now produce fruits and vegetables on a "CSA farm."  (Community Supported Agriculture).  She is the first to mention health care, saying she is looking forward to qualifying for Medicare.  "More people would be going into agriculture if we had a health care system that would cover health care," she said, adding she supports a single payor system.  There is applause.

Vilsack begins by talking about CSAs, but then addresses health care.  "We've had an interesting conversation about that in this country," Vilsack said.  "…Here's why the status quo for rural America is not acceptable….23 percent of people who live in communities of less than 2500 do not have insurance.

"…It's not that these people stop getting sick…they stop going to the doctor..and they finally end up in emergency rooms….that's the most expensive care you can get…so hospitals have to shift that cost to people who have insurance."

According to Vilsack, ppople in rural communities pay $1000 more for private insurance than urban residents.  "And because we have a disproportionate share of small businesses and self-employed people, it exacerbates the problem," Vilsack said.

Vilsack againmentioned the status quo is not acceptable. "There's lot of debate about what the answer is," Vilsack said, without advocating a particular approach. "…Rural American really comes out on the short end of a really long stick,"

Next, a member of the Sac & Fox tribe asks for part of the federal economic stimulus and great attention for the tribe from the USDA.  Vilsack asks John Whitaker, the new state director of the Farm Service Agency, to meet with the gentleman after the forum.

Chris Peterson, current president of the Iowa Farmers Union, tells farmers need to start getting a farm price out of the marketplace.  There are about 10 minutes left in the forum and I need to immediatly "roll" at its conclusion, so I will conclude this live blog and update it later today if events in the next 10 minutes warrant. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.