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Vilsack Filibusters - Then Gets Booed and Hissed

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Oct 13, 2009 at 07:11:02 AM PDT

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The Republicans have nothing on Tom Vilsack when it comes to filibustering. I'm currently at an address he's giving to the Community Food Security Coalition conference, and Vilsack just spoke. Then he offered to take questions. I stood up and got in line. So did many other people around the room - many people who I have great respect for. I wanted to hear their questions and I wanted to hear Vilsack's answers.

I can't perfectly recall the first two questions, but one was whether the Obama administration and Vilsack's USDA stood behind our request for mandatory funding for Farm to School. Vilsack didn't answer. He talked. He talked quite a bit actually. But the basic answer was either "No," "Maybe," or "Not yet." It certainly wasn't yes and he didn't want to say it. Instead he talked about the importance of providing healthy school lunches to children and making sure children who receive free and reduced cost lunch don't feel stigmatized by it.

Then came the next question, asked by blogger Ashley Colpaart of the US Food Policy blog. She said she could see that the USDA was doing a lot to help small and mid-sized farmers, but much of their barriers to success come from large farms. She asked what he was doing to prevent large farms from keeping small and mid-sized farms from succeeding by harming the environment or preventing fair competition.

That's when the filibuster started. Vilsack did just about everything except for answer the question. He talked and talked and talked. Talked about Afghanistan. About feeding the world. About the trade balance. Honestly, I don't know what all he talked about. I tuned out after it became apparent that a real answer to the question wasn't coming.

Vilsack didn't like that question and he obviously didn't want any more questions like it. The easiest way to prevent more questions? Make your answers really, really long. After he finally wrapped up, he was given a notecard saying "Time for two one more questions."

That's when John Kinsman, a legendary dairy farmer from Wisconsin, stood up to ask about dairy. Vilsack gave him a much less longwinded answer, now that he knew he was soon off the hook.

I think the questions were supposed to be finished, but Jeffrey Smith piped up with a question about GMOs. Vilsack answered honestly, that he was for GMOs and he thinks they are needed to feed the world. And... he got booed and hissed. Not by everybody, but by some. It was audible. He heard it. He said he was willing to read any studies and he was willing to meet with anybody.

Then he thanked us and quickly got the hell out of the room. On his way out, I gave him a copy of my book.

Jill Richardson :: Vilsack Filibusters - Then Gets Booed and Hissed
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go Jill! (4.00 / 2)
Way to slip Tom Vilsack a copy of your book!

I hope it was autographed. nt (4.00 / 1)

[ Parent ]
Nope (4.00 / 1)
I was running and didn't have time. If he wants to do a blogger meet up in DC to hear what sustainable food bloggers have to say about policy, I will gladly sign it then.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
he's a good talker! (4.00 / 1)
Sorry he didn't answer more people's questions. The moderator should have asked him to keep his answers brief to enable more people to ask questions, but moderators usually hesitate to interrupt big names.

brownfield's take: (4.00 / 2)   go, join, act

[ Parent ]
The man clearly has run for office in Iowa. (4.00 / 2)
You have described Vilsack's MO.  He hints that he is progressive on a number of issues. (and some of his actions indicate that he is, at least at the margins.)  He is breathtakingly careful never, never, never to admit that any part of the agricultural market is any kind of zero sum game.  

At some point a serious change in food production will be at the expense of the current oligarchy.  I can only hope that the unwillingness to say this out loud is a tactical decision, designed to minimize fear mongering among farmers (see health care debate for example of what they may be trying to avoid.)  

A lot goes on in the current administration that involves faith that these people know what they are doing.  They do tend to be smart and subtle, starting with the head man, but faith is still faith, and I for one, tend to put more value on good works.

good works (4.00 / 1)
The executive branch can do better or worse within a fairly small range of options, but don't you think substantial change is precluded by the stranglehold exerted by Senators from small population ag states?

My dreams at night are about a (totally unrealistic) Constitutional amendment that turns the Senate into something like the U.K. House of Lords, a superannuated but fairly harmless glorified advisory committee.

[ Parent ]
Good appointments? (4.00 / 1)
They can appoint better people. There is a lot of room w/in the executive branch to do a LOT. Just look at how much damage the Bush admin did w/o Congress's help.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
When I said substantial (4.00 / 1)
I guess I meant fundamental.

You're right, as far as that goes.

[ Parent ]
Big state influence (0.00 / 0)
Now that I think about it more, I wonder if things would be any better if large-population states had proportional influence. Yes in some things, but perhaps not in agriculture and food policy.

[ Parent ]
Your question to Vilsack (0.00 / 0)
What would you have liked to ask Mr. Vilsack?

I wanted to ask about all of the advertising (4.00 / 1)
$$ for junk to kids. It's great he went on Sesame Street to tell kids to eat broccoli, but what's the point if there is over $1 billion in advertising junk?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
blame agribusiness, not bigger farms (4.00 / 2)
i think the US Food Policy blogger (and the likes of EWG and others who blame farm subsidies going to "millionanire" farmers) would be better off going after agribusinesses who control and monopolize markets as to why small-midsized farmers can't get a fair break. the big farmers are just a cog in the Monsanto-Cargill driven machinery that pushes farmers to "get big or get out." big farms are not the main reason why the smaller ones can't  make it. they certainly can take advantage of the situation, but they are not the root cause of our bad systems and to lay the blame at them means corporate agribusinesses get let off the hook.

I think you frame the issue very well (4.00 / 1)
The problem is the manufacturing system that the large farms are supplying. That manufacturing system needs raw feedstock, and the only way to supply the quantities that industry needs is with large farms growing commodity crops, be they grains, vegetables, cattle, pigs or poultry.

That industry is driven, in turn, but the consumer who wants cheap food. The food doesn't necessarily have to be good for many, just cheap. I don't know how many times my dad has said he just bought a big package of roamin at Costco and it 'Was so cheap!'. But I do the same thing. I get my olive oil from Costco. It ain't cheap, but with my income the way it is, I wouldn't be using much olive oil at all if I had to buy it from the store. Kind of like how I don't buy real balsamic vinegar. I flat out can't afford it, although it helps that I'm not a big fan of balsamic.

And it just ain't Monsanto and Cargill, it's Chiles (which Joel Salatin is now supplying), Chick-Fil-A, Denny's, and all the other restaurant chains that we either occasionally or regularly support through purchases of their products.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

[ Parent ]
I really should proof better before I hit post (4.00 / 1)
roamin = romaine

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

[ Parent ]
Yes but (0.00 / 0)
I have trouble buying into the dominant perception that "the system" is the somehow inevitable result of a mythically pristine competitive entrepreneurial environment. Federal policy is terrible in this area, and I can't decide which is worse, greedy rapatious capitalists or greedy rapatious politicians. The politicians are involved not merely as enablers but as drivers, it seems to me.

PBO has gotten a lot of propaganda mileage from some fiddling around the edges. Tweaks are better than nothing, and in limited areas they have the potential to be important. Nevertheless, major appointments signal his determination to continue the decades-long federal committment to massive agricultural industrialization and support of the GM sector.

I think, for example, the probability that the JBS/Pilgrim's Pride merger will be blocked is approximately zero. Too big to fail, doncha know. And if that merger is vetoed, who will soak up the Pilgrim's Pride assets? Tyson? Cargill, which already is in poultry? Or perhaps Nilsson, the dominant Canadian beef player that already has U.S. beef operations - maybe they might decide to get into the poultry business?

Vilsack was asked some important questions. His responses were disappointing, but not unexpected.

[ Parent ]
dont worry (4.00 / 1)
the girl who asked the question understands the big picture. Maybe I worded her question wrong.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Let's give him some credit (4.00 / 2)
He's the first Secretary of Ag to speak to CFSC. He didn't have to take questions at all. And he was willing to pretty much say that he's not going to support a ban on GMOs, which he clearly knew wouldn't be a popular statement in that hall. Given that he'd already said he wasn't going to take any more questions, he could have easily ducked the GMO question, but he didn't.

If we want Vilsack to be more progressive, we need to make our positions more popular. As it is, he's made some impressive initiatives in his relatively short time at USDA -- far better than any of us expected him to.

BTW, I think you misunderstand the Farm to School question. The mandatory funding is already part of the recent Farm Bill. Marion Kalb, director of CFSC's Farm to School program, asked a very specific question about the new purchasing procedure of the Department of Defense's Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program that has made it harder for schools to buy local produce. This is the kind of policy detail that it's not realistic to expect a Cabinet-level secretary to understand. So, Vilsack stressed his support for Farm to School and specifically said he'd have his staff look into the specifics of the question.

Sure, Vilsack was overly long-winded. Most politicians are. But I'm amazed he even showed up. Let's give the guy some credit.

Do you know (0.00 / 0)
How did the Fresh Fruit and Veg program come to be located in DoD? I was surprised when I saw this mentioned recently. What other good food programs are located in strange agencies?

[ Parent ]
It's a marriage of convenience (4.00 / 1)
Since DoD was already supplying military bases, commissaries, and other government agencies, USDA decided to use their buying power and distribution network. As I understand it, the way the program used to work is that statewide or regional buyers would source produce however they could, including local when requested. They worked with regional distributors, who delivered the food to schools. Now, however, they've switched to Prime Vendor contracts, and the prime vendors may not be anywhere near the local schools.

As far as what other food programs are oddly situated in the federal government, I'm not sure. Even though I've talked often with school food service directors, I don't understand or envy their job in navigating they byzantine world of federal and state regs!

[ Parent ]
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