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CAVALIER, N.D. -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made northeast North Dakota his first stop in the state since taking office, as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary. Vilsack landed in Grand Forks on Monday, visited with U.S. Department of ...

CAVALIER, N.D. -- Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made northeast North Dakota his first stop in the state since taking office, as Barack Obama's agriculture secretary. Vilsack landed in Grand Forks on Monday, visited with U.S. Department of Agriculte scientists, and then made his big stop of the day - a fund-raiser for Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., on Pat Mahar's farm.

"Every single American who is not a farmer should be thanking a farmer three times a day," Vilsack said to about 200 people at the farm, after being serenaded with patriotic songs in a pristine farm shop that is headquarters of one of the Red River Valley's sugar beet farms.

"We're spending 10 to 15 percent less of our paychecks than anybody else in the world (for food) and that gives us flexibility to buy a nicer car, take a vacation, or live in a nicer home and we have never linked those opportunities to American farm families nad we should be doing that."

Monday's night's event was a big night for Cavalier, with the red-white-and-blue hoopla, but it was also a time to highlight Pomeroy's value to the region's agriculture as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and the Agriculture Committee, and has the ear of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

Mahar, 68, is not an ordinary sugar beet grower in the region.He is one of a small cadre of farmers who have risen to the presidency of the American Sugarbeet Growers Association. He is a former board member for American Crystal Sugar Co., and is a known high-producer for Pomeroy, but also national Republican politicians like George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.


Mahar called Pomeroy a "tremendous, long-time supporter of agriculture" and he sits on "two of the most important committees for the state of North Dakota" -- Agriculture and Ways and Means. Mahar the secretary's visit to his farm was a highlight of his career, on a farm his grandfather started in 1898. He and his wife, Barbara, his brother Jim and her wife Kathy, and their families.

"To have the secretary here was more than I ever dreamed of," Mahar says. He said Pomeroy was instrumental in getting Undersecretary Jim Miller appointed - a former staffer to Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. -- and said Miller had "managed the sugar program the best that I've ever seen."

So far, Pomeroy's close campaign with challenger Rick Berg, had said "not a word" about agriculture.

"We have a few weeks remaining," Pomeroy said, smiling, when asked whether that will change. "Agriculture is the No. 1 sector in our state's economy." He says agriculture surely would be a part of any debate he could schedule with Berg, especially as a new farm bill is written in the next session and budget constraints hit agriculture.

In a matter of Red River Valley interest, Vilsack said USDA is working to help settle matters over genetically-modified sugar beets -- a technology that USDA approved, and now has been challenged by environmental and other groups in court. It isn't yet clear whether farmers will be allowed to grow Roundup Ready beets in 2011, potentially throwing the industry into chaos or at least significant shortages of conventional seed. (leave this)

Vilsackk says the Sierra Club and others recently sued for an injunction against the USDA from issuing permission on the part of several growers from planting the seed crop of beets and are asking for an injunction against the USDA approving a "partial deregulation" that may have been left open by the court in a first decision.

"At this point we're now in a process of having to do the environmental assessments that are required, but at the same time are trying to convince the court to proceed on a partial deregulation and on approval under certain exceptions. The courts are going to decide that. We can't force the courts. We'll proceed until we're told not to."

He says the situation underscores the necessity to figure out a way for organic, conventional and genetically-modified crop producers to coexist.


Vilsack said that he appreciated Pomeroy for his passion for U.S. military veterans, but also for his expertise on disaster program, and a safety net, and rural development.

"These farm bills are complicated, they're very complicated. And you think about the enormity of agriculture in this country -- the diversity of crops that are grown" Vilsack said, adding, that making policy on it has to be "something you have to live, and has to be in your bone marrow, and you have to have passion to take what you know and make farm policy." He said being on Ways and Means is important because it's a place to help find out how to pay for key issues for agriculture.

"There is no one - no one in Congress that understands crop insurance better than Earl Pomeroy," Vilsack says. "I don't care what committee they're on, what background they have. He's been an insurance commissioner, he immerses himself." Vilsack recalled a White House reception in which Pomeroy approached him about crop insurance. "I've never met anybody as passionate about crop insurance as Earl Pomeroy." He said.

Vilsack lauded Pomeroy for his support of including expenditures for broadband internet access for farmers and other rural Americans, as a part of stimulus spending, and for keeping that in USDA jurisdiction. "Eighty-two million dollars, will be invested by the USDA in ten projects that will impact 20,000 people or more, help over 1,000 businesses, and a number of schools and hospitals and other institutions, because he stood up, with his congressional colleagues from North Dakota.

Broadband is a great equalizer, Vilsack said, making it possible to compete internationally to market crops, and to get adequate emergency health care and remote education, among other things.

He took a question from Jared Mack, president of the Cavalier High School student body (and quarterback of the so-far undefeated football team). Mack carried a question to the Secretary of whether it technology is good for agriculture. Vilsack said young people should look to the example of Norman Borlaug, who grew up on a near- subsistence farm in the state where Vilsack had been governor. Borlaug dedicated his life to making agriculture more productive, through technology.

Vilsack said when he was young in the 1950s, one farmer fed 19 people. Today, one farmer feeds 155.

Vilsack meets with North Dakota Trade Office officials and international guests at Big Iron XXX in West Fargo, and will appear on a public forum at the event, sponsored by a radio farm network.


Pates reports on agriculture. Reach him at (701) 297-6869 or mikkel@corpcomm.net .

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