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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack visits Vermont

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US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited the region over the weekend. He attended three meetings in Vermont, addressing the concerns of dairy farmers from throughout the region. Tops on the list was the need for a change in the way milk is priced. Vermont Public Radio Jane Lindholm has more.

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(Lindholm) Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's first appointment of the day was a Town Hall Meeting in downtown Burlington, hosted by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

(Bernie Sanders) "Good morning.  And thank you all very much for coming for what I hope is going to be an interesting and, in fact, productive morning.  What the format is going to be is that I'm going to speak for 3 hours..." (laughter)

(Lindholm) In fact, Secretary Vilsack swiftly took the podium.  This was the first visit to Vermont by a US Secretary of Agriculture in 20 years and Vilsack was quick to put the dairy crisis into context.

(Secretary Vilsack) "The time has come for the industry to come together and figure out a consensus approach so we can begin to create greater stability, greater sustainability, in the dairy industry.  Every region of the country is struggling.  Every region of the country has farmers who have lost their farms.  Every region of the country has farmers who have lost money.  Every region of the country has dairy farmers who wonder if they will be able to pass on this opportunity to their children and their grandchildren.

(Lindholm) Farmers from all over the Northeast packed the Ballroom at the Hilton Hotel where the meeting was being held.  And, although the tone throughout was civil, the stress of living with low milk prices was audible during the question and answer period.

(Bob Foster) "The northeast dairy farmers and their support structures which include the vets, the banks, the machinery dealers, the feed dealers, are quite literally bleeding to death financially right now." (Roger Rainville) "If we don't have some kind of supply management, then we're going to be having these meetings again.  I wish this was the first meeting that we've had on this issue.  But I think in my 45 years it's probably our hundredth meeting we've had.  The system is broke.  And we need to fix it." (Kenneth Dibbell) "Something has got to be done to put the money in the milk checks for this whole northeast, and the nation! Please, go to work and fix this thing!  Thank you." (Applause)

(Lindholm) Secretary Vilsack did not articulate what he thinks the long-term solution to the dairy pricing crisis is.  But he did say that the burden of action falls not just on the federal government.

(Vilsack) "I gotta be honest.  It isn't just USDA that's got to get its act together.  It's important for dairy farmers across the country.  Because the reason that things don't get passed in Congress is not because these guys can't do their job, but they face a California delegation that may say 'that's not going to work for our farmers.' Or a Wisconsin delegation says 'that's not going to work for our farmers.'...I guarantee that if consensus were to be developed you would actually see pretty swift action.  The problem is, we haven't had that kind of consensus, until now."

(Lindholm) While dairy was the main topic of the Secretary's visit to Vermont, other issues were also discussed.  The secretary outlined a comprehensive Obama Administration focus on rural America that includes universal broadband internet access, sustainable energy opportunities, and environmental conservation.  And he addressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform that would help dairy farmers hire migrant workers.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Jane Lindholm in Burlington.

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