Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Ag secretary Vilsack Discuss Stimulus Funds in Long County on Monday.

LUDOWICI - The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture spent about an hour and a half here Monday, taking questions at a town hall-style meeting in the Long County Courthouse and touting the impact of federal stimulus money on agricultural projects in Georgia.

Tom Vilsack, who has been touring the nation, spoke in the small town about 50 miles northwest of Brunswick to announce that the agriculture department is giving $60 million to rural communities across the nation for emergency responder projects. That includes three new police cars for the Ludowici Police Department.

Vilsack said his department would also look at giving Ludowici money for wastewater treatment improvements, part of the department's goal to help rural communities thrive in more ways than just their farms.

"It goes toward quality of life," Vilsack said. He said the department has distributed $193 million in stimulus money to Georgia.

Vilsack, after making his announcements, took questions from a group of about 150 persons, mostly farmers or others who work in agriculture.

He heard pleas from farmers on numerous topics, including a request for help to re-open a poultry plant in nearby Coffee County that closed Friday, another to rethink lowering the cap on federal support of middle-sized farms and one to fund more research.

Vilsack said he would be willing to put pressure on federal bankruptcy courts to encourage Pilgrim's Pride, which owns the Coffee County poultry plant, to sell it quickly, so the hundreds of workers from multiple counties can get back to work.

In the meantime, he said the agriculture department was giving farmers who have taken direct loans from the department, such as for home mortgages, more time to repay them while they wait for the plant possibly to open.

Vilsack, a Democrat, was governor of Iowa from 1998 to January of this year, when he was appointed by President Barack Obama to his cabinet post.

He spoke about the need for farmers to be more visible in their own communities and to help residents better understand where their food originates.

To peanut farmers like Armond Morris of Ocilla, who asked him to include more peanuts in school lunches and in military meals, Vilsack said it's the responsibility of the farmers to speak to local school boards to encourage them to add, for example, peanut butter sandwiches to lunch menus. He said he was happy to see an increase in the use of peanut products after February's salmonella scare that had been traced to a plant in Georgia and said the department is concentrating on making sure America's food is safe.

Allen Whitehead, a member of the Georgia Peanut Commission and a farmer from Ashburn, said a move by the agriculture department to lower the cap on the gross income of farmers to be eligible for federal assistance hurts farmers in the Southeast who raise crops such as peanuts and cotton.

Those crops bring in more money but also require more expense at the outset than others, such as corn.

Whitehead said his farm had recently expanded but that he's not making huge profits, and needs a federal "safety net" to stay in business.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, who has held that job for 40 years, said Vilsack's visit is the first time he's heard of a U.S. Agriculture Secretary holding a meeting like this in Georgia.

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