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Tom Vilsack's Farm-Country Tour: A Different Kind of Town Hall

5 years ago
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Health care town-hall meetings are certainly stealing the spotlight these days -- but they're not the only game in town. Mostly unnoticed, a quieter series of town halls is taking place on a different crisis: Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has embarked on a listening tour through rural America to hear about the problems facing farmers. And it's a good thing too, because back on the farm, all is not well.

On Wednesday at the Iowa State Fair, a group of farmers gathered from all over the state. Walking straight past the 1,000-pound squash, a 600-pound butter sculpture of a cow and the stand selling fried Milky Way bars, the farmers sat down to detail some of the problems they were facing to their former governor.

First on most people's minds was the flailing economy. Not only are farmers worried about falling prices for the food they produce, but farmland is also dropping in value, putting farms at greater risk of foreclosure. "We know there are better days ahead, but it's really tough if the banker's at the door asking for a payment," Vilsack said, before touting recent efforts to restructure loans to farmers and free up stimulus funds to provide new farm loans.

Frequent food recalls coupled with a growing movement toward becoming more aware of where food comes from have sparked greater public interest in agriculture, but the problems facing it have not been as readily apparent. Outwardly, agriculture looks robust. Earlier this year, agricultural census data showed a farming industry that was both growing and diversifying. The total number of farms had jumped 4 percent over the last five years, and the number of small farms, producing a greater variety of foods, grew by 74,000.

Undercutting those increases, however, is a decline in mid-sized farms -- what we would think of as family farms. Many are being forced to either shut down, or the owners must pick up another occupation to defray costs.

Vilsack noted that more than half of American farmers have a second full-time job and 90 percent of income that farmers make doesn't come from farming. He added that 75 percent of food is produced by 4 percent of American farmers and that within the next year the USDA and the Department of Justice will hold antitrust hearings on competition in the agricultural industry.

To anyone who has been watching the contentious health care debate, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the agriculture town halls is their tone. A sampling of recent health care forums includes Tuesday's altercation between Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and a questioner who accused him of supporting "this Nazi [health care] policy." Frank replied that trying to respond to her would be "like arguing with a dining room table." Another recent town hall in Tampa with Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) reportedly turned into a brawl, with police racing to seal entrances.

The agriculture town halls, on the other hand, have been remarkably civil --perhaps one reason they haven't been garnering headlines. Still, there is plenty of disagreement on the issues. Mike VerSteeg, an Iowa hog farmer, expressed opposition to cap-and-trade legislation. Citing high energy costs as one reason, he added, "Government is getting involved in my life. I think can run my farm better than they do." Vilsack, though, noted that the offsets for agriculture in the cap-and-trade plan would actually result in a net income gain for farmers. And he cited another reason for supporting the plan, saying that "there is no question that we are now currently seeing the impact of climate change."

Even though farming concerns have sparked a very different kind of discussion than the town halls on health care, some of the same issues are still being dealt with. Denise O'Brien, a candidate in 2006 for Iowa's secretary of agriculture who formerly ran a dairy farm with her husband, attended Wednesday's town hall. When dairy prices kept dropping, she and her husband joined a Community Supported Agriculture group and switched to growing fruits and vegetable to sell locally. The switch saved their farm, but it also forced them to find a health care plan.

As prize cattle nearby were delicately brushed and blow-dried by their handlers, being prepped for competition at the state fair, O'Brien described how leaving dairy farming had changed the way her family planned for illnesses.

"We could always just sell a cow," O'Brien told me, explaining how unexpected health care costs were met. But, when they switched from dairy to fruits and vegetables, being uninsured was no longer an option. While O'Brien could buy health insurance through the CSA, her husband had to leave full-time farming for a job that offered health benefits -- joining the 55 percent of farmers who have another primary job.

It's not just the lack of insurance that's troubling farmers. Vilsack estimated that the out-of-pocket costs for people living in rural communities was about $1,000 more per year than their urban counterparts pay. "Rural America really comes out at the short end of a very long stick under the current health care system," he said.

Besides his trip to Iowa, the secretary of agriculture has also held town halls in North Carolina and Alaska. Before his rural tour wraps up in September, he will have held similar gatherings in Ohio, Nebraska, Missouri and New Mexico, and is also inviting online submission of concerns.

In his home state on Wednesday, though, he was clearly comfortable. The popular governor of Iowa before accepting his new gig with the Obama administration, Vilsack was a familiar figure to the crowd -- so familiar, in fact, that on his way out the door, another reporter glanced down at Vilsack's feet and commented on his new shoes. Gesturing at the cowboy boots, Vilsack explained that they were a gift from his wife, bought on the advice of Bill Clinton after he and the former president took a joint trip to Africa. Saying he was initially skeptical that they could really be so comfortable, he now found himself marveling at the fit. The same could be said of the town hall.

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