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Vilsack: Dairy industry helps address significant issues

Oct. 18, 2012 | 0 comments

MADISON

The dairy industry is doing it’s best to address some of the big issues of our time — helping reduce greenhouse gasses and provide better nutrition that can help the nation battle a rising tide of obesity.

When U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to a crowd of dairy farmers, reporters and dairy industry representatives during World Dairy Expo in Madison, Oct. 2, he talked about the Farm Bill but also touched on a number of other issues of interest to dairy farmers — among them nutrition.

Vilsack said a group of retired generals and admirals came to the USDA with deep concerns that the United States will not have enough young people who will be fit enough for military service as we go forward in time.

With one-third of the nation’s citizens either obese or at risk for obesity, the retired military leaders fear that the military readiness of the country will suffer because of the level of obesity among young people.

Vilsack told the audience that low-fat dairy is very important in the revised school lunch program that the USDA has rolled out this year. "Dairy producers are up front and helping to lead the way," he said.

There are 32 million youngsters that get lunch in schools and 12 million also get their breakfast at school.

The USDA school lunch program reduces soda, sugar and fat content but "our job isn’t to provide a menu for every child," he said.

Vilsack also noted that rural areas of the country have only 16 percent of the population, but provide 40 percent of our volunteer military population.

Some observers attribute that to a lack of other opportunities in rural areas, he said, but he believes it comes more from a set of community values that are nurtured in small towns and rural areas.

There, people know farmers or are farmers, and they see that things need to be "properly cared for and tended" in order to prosper. "You surround your community with that value," he said, and also with the idea that people need to give back to their community.

 

ALTERNATIVE ENERGY

Producers are also helping with check-off money that supports the Dairy Innovation Center. The center did a study on the carbon footprint of a gallon of milk and has started several programs to reduce that footprint.

As producers realize the importance of reducing greenhouse gas, and recognize the importance of consumers’ perception of the "green" value of dairy products, more and more dairy farms are installing manure digesters.

Vilsack said the USDA’s Rural Development programs have helped farmers financially with their goals of manure digestion, energy production and the collateral goal of managing manure.

In answer to a question about ethanol and the related issue of the high price of corn that many dairy farmers must buy to feed their livestock, Vilsack said the alternative fuel made from corn has reduced the price of a gallon of gasoline for U.S. consumers and has made this country more energy secure.

The secretary also said that if ethanol mandates in the Renewable Fuel Standard were removed it wouldn’t lower the global price of corn substantially — at least not enough to help the livestock producers who are struggling under the high price of feed.

Because ethanol also has the added benefit of being a fuel oxygenator, the petroleum industry says it will continue to use ethanol, he added.

Vilsack added that the country "shouldn’t have to rely on corn" for its alternative energy and the USDA has invested in nine separate bio-refineries to look at different feed stocks for ethanol production.

Some of those projects are looking at switchgrass, corn stover, algae and miscanthus as feed stocks that could be used to produce ethanol. Funded projects are all over the country.

The Navy is concerned about military security and the foreign sources of oil that fuel airplanes, he said. Together the USDA and the Department of Energy are working on a "farm-to-fly" initiative to produce aviation fuel from non-food feed stocks with a goal of producing half of their fuel needs from homegrown biological sources.

"This industry is creating innovation," Vilsack said.

He commented on a Wisconsin company that is turning corn cobs into plastic drink bottles that the Coca Cola Company is interested in using for their drinks.

"It’s an exciting, extraordinary new opportunity that comes along if it is given enough time."

 

RESEARCH NEEDED

In talking about potential farm legislation that has yet to be passed by Congress, Vilsack said that it is very important for the United States to continue to invest in research.

When Congress gets around to passing a Farm Bill, he said he hopes that it continues to support Land Grant colleges and universities so they can collaborate and work with USDA’s research arm to continue to come up with innovations like the ones he mentioned.

The collaboration, he said, "provides a bigger bang for the buck" adding that "American’s can’t get into the process of making, creating and innovating without funding new things."

It was 150 years ago when the USDA was created and at that time 90 percent of the country’s population was connected to farms. Numbers of farmers have continued to dwindle over time.

Today, if the most generous definition of a "farm" is used — production of $1,000 worth of goods produced — there are 2.3 million "farmers," he said, but about 1.3 of those are really what he called "residential farmers."

"We have gone from 90 percent of our population being farmers to less than one percent."

Of those about one-tenth of one percent produce enough "stuff" to be considered full-time farmers, he added. "There aren’t enough farmers left to be fussing with each other," Vilsack added.

Even with that small number of farmers, the secretary said that the United States is a "food secure" nation able to produce all that’s needed to feed our citizens.

"There are 60 million farmers in China and they can’t come close to producing what they need to feed their people."

In addition, U.S. consumers experience extraordinary diversity of products when they visit the grocery store and use only 7-8 percent of their paycheck to buy food. "That means they have the capacity to use money for other things."

 

PERSON OF THE YEAR

Vilsack told farmers that when he attended the White House correspondents’ dinner — when a comedian/host cracks jokes about current events and the administration and the President does the same — he sat with the reporters and editors from "Time" magazine.

He said he knew they would have much rather had a celebrity at their table like George Clooney but they "got stuck with the agriculture secretary."

However, he took the opportunity to make a pitch to the magazine editorial crew that they should consider making the American farmer their "person of the year" — a title they confer at the end of each year.

Agriculture should get credit, he said, for providing the U.S. economy with "greater stability on the supply side" and helping the country get through the recession without worse damage.

"Even with the drought, we’re likely to have the eighth largest corn crop in history," he said. "It was a horrible year, a tough year, but it is so much better than anyone in the mainstream media ever thought."

In any other country, he said, this drought would have spelled disaster.

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