Vilsack caught up in beltway scandal du jour (updated)

Rarely are secretaries of agriculture near the center of attention in Washington, but Tom Vilsack is in the hot seat after abetting the right-wing noise machine’s latest attempt to undermine the Obama administration. On Monday an African-American US Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, was sacked because a right-wing website made her appear to have discriminated against a white farmer.

Sherrod, USDA’s rural development director for Georgia, said she was ordered to resign on Monday after a video, posted on one of Andrew Breitbart’s conservative sites, showed her saying she had not given a white farmer her “full force.”

The NAACP later posted the full, unedited video of Sherrod speaking at an NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner, and it showed the remarks had been taken out of context in the version posted by Breitbart. Breitbart had said that he had posted the full version he was given. The farmer, Roger Spooner, now 87, appeared on CNN from his Georgia home and said Sherrod had been “helpful in every way – she saved our farm.”

Vilsack should know better than to validate a phony right-wing narrative, but he’s never been a happy partisan warrior. I’m not surprised he kicked a USDA official to the curb instead of waiting to hear all the facts. He probably hoped to kill this “news” story before it gained momentum. The problem is, he has created more incentive for Obama’s opponents to gin up fake scandals. Vilsack also damaged his own reputation. Lots of people will want answers to the questions Greg Sargent asks today:

Now that the full Shirley Sherrod video has been released, vindicating her completely, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is  promising to undertake a review of her firing. So maybe he will re-instate her after all.

But it isn’t enough for Vilsack to reinstate her. People should demand that his review include an explanation for his own decision to fire her. We need to hear his justification for the decision to ax this woman before all the facts were in, on the strength of nothing more than an Andrew Breitbart smear.

Did Vilsack make any effort to learn more about her speech before giving her the push? If not, why not? Sherrod says she told top USDA officials that the full speech would vindicate her. Did anyone at USDA give her protestations even a passing listen? Did anyone try to obtain video of the full speech? If not, why not? Why was Breitbart’s word alone allowed to drive such a high-profile decision?

People should also demand that the White House weigh in publicly on what happened here. The White House has only discussed this via anonymous leaks, and this morning, officials are conveniently leaking word that the White House prodded Vilsack to reconsider Sherrod’s firing. That’s nice, but was the White House told in advance that the firing was about to happen, and if so, why did it allow the firing to proceed?

The White House looks bad for supporting Vilsack’s rush to judgment, then backing off when the full video of Sherrod’s remarks appeared. But ultimately, this was Vilsack’s mistake. Let’s hope he learned the right lessons from it.

UPDATE: Charles Lemos posted the full video of Sherrod’s speech and his reaction to it. It’s worth a read.

SECOND UPDATE: Vilsack has apologized and offered Sherrod another USDA position. I’ve posted the video after the jump. Good for him; it’s not always easy for politicians to admit a mistake. TPMDC reported today,

In response to a question from TPMDC, Vilsack called the debacle “a teachable moment for me.” He admitted that Sherrod had received advance notice of Breitbart’s intention to (mis)use the clip and had attempted to inform her superiors, including Vilsack, by email — but the email did not get through, and thus her superiors’ first contact with her regarding the incident was after Breitbart’s release of the clip.

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One of the "sustainable dozen" will replace John Norris at USDA

I was pleased to read in the Sunday Des Moines Register that the new chief of staff for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will be Karen Ross, former head of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. Ross was one of the "sustainable dozen" candidates that Food Democracy Now recommended for under-secretary positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Last January Food Democracy Now told its supporters that Ross was getting serious consideration for a USDA post.

It’s encouraging to know that a voice for family farmers and sustainable practices will be running Vilsack’s office. In recommending Ross for an under-secretary position at the USDA, Michael Dimock of Roots of Change wrote more than a year ago,

Karen will represent well the diverse crops of our nation’s largest agricultural state. We know she will be a voice of innovation and adaptation that will support full expression of a sustainable agriculture over time. She did a great job shepherding the State Board’s recent visioning process for agriculture that rendered what we see as a very constructive vision for our future. Karen has also been a defining and constructive voice in the [Roots of Change]-funded California Roundtable for Agriculture and the Environment.

The visioning process Dimock mentions was California Ag Vision, an “effort to develop a broad consensus on how California might arrive at a farming and food system that can be sustained by the year 2030.”

Ross will replace John Norris, who did not come from an agriculture background but had worked closely with Vilsack for years in Iowa. He agreed to be Vilsack’s chief of staff at USDA with the understanding that it would be a temporary position. Norris was pursuing a spot on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to which the Senate confirmed him in December. Having completed his work as Vilsack’s chief of staff, Norris will start work next week at the FERC.

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Vilsack declines pork industry request (for now)

Following up on the request by nine governors and pork industry giants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $50 million on excess pork products, Radio Iowa reported on Tuesday that the USDA can’t help right now:

“We are down to our last $7 or 8 million because there’s been such a demand for so many kinds of commodities, including pork. I think in the last fiscal year $62 million worth of pork purchases have been made,” [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack says. “…So we are trying to meet the demands of everyone.”

Vilsack says there may be more money in the pipeline this fall. “When October 1 comes, when the new fiscal year starts, we have a little greater flexibility and at that time we are taking a look at all these requests,” Vilsack says, “and we will make determinations at that point in time in terms of what is being requested of us and what we think makes sense.” […]

“We are very sensitive to the concerns of the pork industry. We have tried to respond by asking our institutional purchasers like the Department of Defense and others to purchase more pork products. We’ll continue to do that,” Vilsack says. “But I think we are stuck by virtue of the amount of money left in the account that we use to do this, but in October 1 it gets replenished and we’ll be in a different position.”

Meanwhile, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement makes it easy for you to e-mail Governor Chet Culver to tell him you oppose taxpayer-funded bailouts of factory farms.

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Dave Murphy is working to strengthen rural economies

The Des Moines Register profiled Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now in Monday’s edition. The article mentioned the incredible success of the petition signed by more than 94,000 Americans. Two of the "sustainable dozen" candidates whom Food Democracy Now recommended for U.S. Department of Agriculture posts now work for the department. Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton, also on the sustainable dozen list, is an "informal adviser" to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

You should read the whole Des Moines Register article. The most important passage is about how Murphy makes the case for changing agriculture policies:

[Murphy] pointed to a survey from the Organic Trade Association that showed that the U.S. sales of organic food grew nearly 16 percent between 2007 and 2008 to reach $22.9 billion. Organic foods now account for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. food sales.

For Murphy, sustainable farming is about more than the food.

He sees it as returning to a model of production that is better for the environment and one in which farmers can start without taking on deep debt to finance heavy equipment.

He said the agricultural policies today are stacked against farmers of small- to mid-sized farms in favor of larger operations. […]

Murphy stressed that he isn’t against large farm operations. He said sustainable practices can help farms of all sizes.

But Murphy does believe that the playing field ought to be leveled, for the benefit not just for smaller farms but for rural areas in general.

“That’s the best way to improve rural economies,” he said. “The more farmers there are on the land, the better it is for rural economies.”

Health and environmental concerns sparked my interest in buying local food produced sustainably, but Murphy is wise to connect the dots between agriculture policies and the economic future of rural areas. For more along those lines, read the feature on Murphy and Food Democracy Now from the Washington Post in March.

Speaking of Iowans who are incredibly committed to helping small and medium-sized farms thrive, Woodbury County’s rural economic development director Rob Marqusee has pledged to “eat only food grown within 100 miles of the Woodbury County Courthouse for the entire month of June 09 (and no meat will be allowed in the diet).” Keep an eye on Marqusee’s Woodbury Organics site next month, because he’ll be blogging about his food challenge.

Those interested in Murphy’s work should go read more on the Food Democracy Now site. Click here for past Bleeding Heartland posts that referenced Food Democracy Now’s work. Jill Richardson wrote more here about Murphy’s activist roots and the role he played during the Iowa caucus campaign.

If organic farmer Francis Thicke decides to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010, expanding local food networks will be a major theme of his campaign.

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Important news for organic and transitioning farmers

In March I asked readers to submit public comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture advocating for organic farmers to receive more money under USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

I’m happy to pass along good news on this front:

Speaking today to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced $50 Million for a new initiative to meet the Obama Administration’s promise to encourage more organic agriculture production. Funding for the initiative is being made available as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“Assisting organic producers is a priority of the 2008 Farm Bill as well as for Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration,” said Merrigan. “The objective of this initiative is to make organic food producers eligible to compete for EQIP financial assistance.”

The 2009 Organic Initiative is a nationwide special initiative to provide financial assistance to National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic producers as well as producers in the process of transitioning to organic production. Organic producers may also apply for assistance under general EQIP.

Under the Organic Initiative required minimum core conservation practices will be determined by specific resource concerns. The practices are: Conservation Crop Rotation; Cover Crop; Nutrient Management; Pest Management; Prescribed Grazing; and Forage Harvest Management. States must consider using any appropriate practice that meets the resource concern on a particular operation.

(hat tip to Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore)

Here’s some background courtesy of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

The organic conversion assistance was provided for by the 2008 Farm Bill but the plan went awry when the Bush Administration issued rules for the EQIP program just before leaving office which baffled state and local offices of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  As a result, in a majority of states organic farmers and transitioning farmers were simply not being served, in contradiction of Congress’ intent in the farm bill.

“This was a was a wrong that needed righting, and with today’s announcement USDA is not only setting it right, but doing so in an innovative and farmer-friendly manner,” said Aimee Witteman, NSAC Executive Director.  “We thank NRCS and USDA leadership for listening to the concerns of organic farmers and applaud their new initiative.”

Note: farmers must apply for these special EQIP funds between May 11 and May 29.

Kudos to Tom Vilsack for getting behind a policy that will help producers meet the growing demand for organic food. Today’s announcement is a victory for the environment, farmers and groups involved in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. It’s also clear that Food Democracy Now knew what they were doing when they included Merrigan on their “sustainable dozen” list for the USDA.  

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Last day to help end "factory farm bailout"

Last month I posted about efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce the share of conservation funds that large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) receive through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP).

Food Democracy Now sent out an action alert on Thursday reminding supporters that comments on making EQIP work for sustainable and organic farmers must be received by the USDA by the close of business on April 17 (today).

You can fax your letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (202-720-4265) or submit your comments online (Food Democracy Now has instructions on that process).

Click here and scroll down the page for talking points and a sample letter on this issue. However, it’s always better to put these things in your own words if possible. I’ve posted Food Democracy Now’s sample letter after the jump. If you are writing your own letter, make sure it goes to the correct address and says this near the top:

Re: Docket Number NRCS- IFR-08005 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Final Rules

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