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Home » From the Commissioner

AG Secretary Vilsack Visits the State

New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, Markets & Food (July 9, 2009)

Tom_VilsackJust a few weeks ago, 20 dairy farmers told Governor John Lynch they wanted an opportunity to talk with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. On short notice we learned New Hampshire would be the second stop on the Obama Administration’s “Renewing America’s Promise” Rural Tour. Despite short lead time and the holiday weekend, word spread like wildfire by internet, phone and news media. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, Cong. Paul Hodes, Cong. Carol Shea-Porter, and Gov. Lynch all accompanied Secretary Vilsack on his visits to two farms in the Concord area, and spoke to the importance of the farm economy to the environment and character of the state. A number of state representatives and senators also participated.The dairy farmers got their chance for a private visit with the secretary at Bohanan Farm in Hopkinton, owned and operated by Jamie and Heather Robertson and family. About 30 farmers told stories of heartache and financial peril, and asked the secretary to help find a way to get emergency cash to dairy producers,to help preserve this important aspect of regional and local food systems and security. The secretary said both short-term and long-term solutions were needed to save dairy farms. He told the farmers that special credit assistance for dairy farmers would be announced within a few days.This could include low-interest operating loans, interest reduction, foregoing of payments for some period of time, etc.

Secretary Vilsack said emergency loan programs would help “buy time” for producers until longer-term solutions could be found. Now that Congress has shifted focus from stimulus spending to a more fiscally responsible ‘Pay as you go’ approach,finding emergency cash will be a
challenge-requiring reductions somewhere else.

About 300 people converged on Rob and Annette LaRocque’s Carter Hill Orchard in Concord for an open forum with the secretary. People came from all corners of our state, plus neighboring states including Maine, Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. The ‘town hall’ style meeting received extensive coverage by members of both print and broadcast media.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, spoke compellingly at both gatherings of his work as a lawyer during the 1980s farm crisis representing Iowa farmers trying to forestall foreclosure.The Pennsylvania native attended college and law school in upstate New York, so he knows the Northeast. In response to a dairy question at the Carter Hill forum, Secretary Vilsack made a surprise announcement. He will establish a 15-person advisory committee to look at the federal order pricing structure, as authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill. As a result of what he heard earlier that morning from dairy farmers, he told the assembled crowd, “I have instructed my staff to begin that process today.”

The Northeastern states’ commissioners and secretaries of agriculture and other political leaders have urged Secretary Vilsack to initiate this review of the milk pricing system for fairness for farmers and to help promote profitability and stability in the dairy industry. In response to audience questions,Secretary Vilsack said USDA is looking into related issues such as imports of milk protein concentrates (MPCs) and casein that are used in making cheese and other food products, and concentration of the dairy processing sector into a small number of very large companies. But these are complex issues, he cautioned. He also said farmers will see net gains from new climate change programs, with payments for carbon-conserving practices exceeding higher costs.

A proponent for local and regional food systems, Secretary Vilsack emphasized, “I am not in favor of a small number of dairy farms in one centralized area of the country.”  The Robertson and LaRocque families were gracious hosts, and their farms presented New Hampshire agriculture at its finest.

Lorraine Merrill
Commissioner Agriculture, Markets, & Food

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