Meeting with regional anti-poverty strategists at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shrugged off mounting Congressional criticism of his farm programs while applauding local efforts to feed tens of thousands of hungry Pennsylvanians.
Flanked by his wife, Christie, Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, also told the planners that the federal government was prepared to spend heavily to prop up the price of milk but declined to say how much he thinks a Congress reeling from budget deficits should buy. With Pennsylvania dairy farmers now getting less than $1.25 for a gallon of milk — below the cost of producing it — producers predict more family firms will go bust without federal help.
Agreeing that it was a "stressful time" for dairy farmers, Vilsack, 59, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, said prices might have stabilized had producers not increased the size of their herds, flooding the market with milk. He wants to forge a national dairy policy to level out the peaks and valleys of milk pricing and hopes to receive "sometime in 2010" a list of recommendations from a special advisory committee holding ongoing meetings.
Vilsack continues to spar with mostly GOP congressmen in farm states over the direction of federal agriculture policy. Last week, House Agriculture Committee Republican leader Frank Lucas of Oklahoma blasted Vilsack's emphasis on nontraditional farm issues such as regional food systems, organic vegetable cultivation, community gardens and other initiatives as threats to turn rural America into "bedroom communities."
GOP U.S. Senators John McCain of Arizona, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, wrote Vilsack last week accusing his "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program of helping "small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets" instead of traditional producers who grow most of America's food.
"Well, it's really an unfortunate circumstance," Vilsack told the Trib. "These senators have not taken the time to understand and appreciate our 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' program."
Calling their letter "inappropriate" because they "didn't take the time to find out" key parts of the program such as trimming the distance traditional livestock ranchers need to drive their herds to slaughter, Vilsack said he would continue to promote community gardens, farmers markets and other initiatives as a means to find new markets for all producers.