Vilsack addresses divisive issues
USDA secretary fields questions from attendees
By TIM HEARDEN
WEAVERVILLE, Calif. -- Participants in a town hall meeting here Dec. 10 peppered U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with a barrage of questions about a variety of issues, including genetically modified foods, meat processing and even industrial hemp.
In one testy exchange, a proponent of organics accused Vilsack of "fast-tracking" Roundup Ready alfalfa and other commodities while dragging his feet on other issues, including management of national forests.
Vilsack countered that President Barack Obama's administration is the first "that has extensively focused on supporting organics," including devoting grant funding, and that he has facilitated discussions between organic and conventional producers about cross-contamination of crops.
"In agriculture, there's no sense of community," Vilsack said. "There's a constant struggle between ag interests and it's destructive. The reason it's destructive is there are fewer and fewer people in the business. ... You along with production agriculture need to pick your fights very strategically. All agriculture should be supported."
The exchange came as Vilsack fielded about two dozen questions from among the more than 200 attendees who filled a veterans' hall for the two-hour evening meeting.
Adam Hall of Salyer, Calif., said he's worked for several small meat producers frustrated that the closest USDA inspection and slaughter facility is in Oregon.
"It's a substantial obstacle to processing meat locally," he said.
Vilsack explained the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service set up a voluntary program that allows state inspections of meat and poultry products, but that California has yet to sign up to participate in the program.
"Food safety is a big issue, and meat obviously is a big concern," the secretary said, noting that several hundred people a year die from food poisoning. "It's an important issue."
Erica Terence, executive director of the Orleans, Calif.-based Klamath Riverkeeper, asked Vilsack why the U.S. Forest Service isn't fully exercising its water right on the Scott River in far Northern California, which has been at the center of battles over imperiled coho salmon.
"Around here and especially in my community, fisheries are a huge source of income for people and are part of our culture," Terence said. "That's an economic opportunity that should not be missed."
Vilsack responded the government needs to strike the right balance between the environment and other interests, including agriculture and recreation.
"It's a hard balance," he said. "We're trying to find ways to bring people together."
On other issues, Vilsack:
* Acknowledged that "we haven't done the job we're supposed to do" with regard to managing forests, partly because funding for management was being diverted to fire suppression until recently. He said Congress has provided more money for firefighting equipment in the last several years.
* Said there's merit to allowing production of industrial hemp, noting that Canada and other competing nations are doing so. He said he's raised the issue with Attorney General Eric Holder and hasn't received much of a response.
* Chided the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives for not making a new farm bill a priority. He said he hopes the bill will be included in a final "fiscal cliff" budget package, though time is running short.