U.S. Secretary of Ag visits Geneseo

Lisa Depies
Tom Vilsack, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, speaks during a question and answer forum in the Geneseo High School library on June 1.

The United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Geneseo on June 1 to learn more about issues concerning local residents.

“We’re in the process of re-branding the USDA?(United States Department of Agriculture),” he said. “People think the USDA is just for farmers or ranchers, but it affects everyone’s lives, every day.”

Dubbed a “listening tour” Vilsack is touring the country hosting small question and answer forums. Approximately 200 area residents attended his Geneseo forum, held in the high school library.

The event also was attended by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, both of whom represent Geneseo in Congress.

Bio-fuel and its future in America was a primary topic at the hour-and-a-half long forum.

“The ethanol industry is important not just for the economy, but also for national security,” said Vilsack. “We need to break our dependence on foreign oil.”

Vilsack said bio-fuels was an “infant industry” but said both he and President Barack Obama have placed an emphasis on expanding the industry. “We need to take the future into our own hands.

“It’s also important for those in the Midwest to understand that the future of bio-fuels isn’t exclusively corn based,” he said. “We need to have all parts of the country included (in bio-fuel production).” Vilsack said he foresees using products such as algae, grass and other crops as bio-fuel bases in the future.

Ray Elliott, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, asked Vilsack how the federal government expected to keep the bio-fuels industry viable when the current economic situation has severely limited the credit available to ethanol plants.

“The ethanol industry is in trouble,” Elliott said.

“We’re very well aware of the credit issue,” said Vilsack. “We’re trying to figure out ways to help the ethanol industry get through the credit crunch.” Vilsack said the USDA is urging private banks and lenders to issue credit to the ethanol industry.

“It needs to be understood how important it is for us to keep the ethanol infrastructure in place,” he said.

Though bio-fuels have been made a priority by the Obama administration, Dr. Chris Kuster of Geneseo, who serves as a veterinary consultant to the hog industry, expressed concern that bio-fuel’s promotion is hurting other industries.

Kuster said he was concerned that taxes paid by those in the hog industry were used to subsidize the ethanol industry, driving up corn prices and makes feed more expensive for those trying to raise hogs.

Vilsack responded by explaining that, though the ethanol industry does receive subsidies, the USDA offers services and advantages to the hog industry as well.

“We have 90 foreign USDA offices and do business in 154 countries,” he said. “That’s the way we promote trade. Ag — and livestock in particular — is one of the only parts of our economy that has a surplus, and the majority of the livestock traded is pork.”

Vilsack said the USDA’s research labs also do “a tremendous amount of research to eliminate or reduce diseases in hogs, which adds a great value to the industry.”

The USDA also purchases surplus commodities to help control prices. “Just the other day, I signed off on $25 million in pork to help bolster prices, and we do that several times a year,”?he said.

Though Vilsack said he’s not aware of how much tax-payer funding goes toward ethanol in comparison to that which goes to the hog industry, he estimated it was “about the same.”

The Secretary of Agriculture also discussed the American Renewal and Reinvestment Act, which will benefit rural America. “These kind of resources haven’t been invested in rural America in a very long time. It’s long overdue,” he said. “At the USDA, we’re committed to building strong rural communities.”

Geneseo Mayor Pat Eberhardt said Vilsack’s visit “shows the Obama administration cares about rural communities.”

“Geneseo has a lot to offer, and it shows that Secretary Vilsack realizes that by selecting Geneseo as one of the stops on his tour.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, center, addresses the crowd in the Geneseo High School library on June 1. With Durbin is U.S.?Secretary of Agriculture Tom? Vilsack, left, and U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, right.