November 17, 2006

Wanted: Agricultural Saviour

Wanted: agricultural savior

Written by Ethan Dezotelle
The County Courier
Thursday, 16 November 2006

It was announced late last week that after four years, Vermont’s Secretary of Agriculture, Steve Kerr, would resign from his post, effective Friday, Dec. 15. David Lane, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, is now Acting Secretary.

Kerr’s resignation comes at an interesting and tumultuous time for Vermont’s agriculture industry, and the man or woman picked to replace him in the long term faces trials that could break the back of many a Vermont farmer, as well as opportunities that could propel the state’s agrarians into a very fruitful future.

One of the first challenges before the next Ag Secretary is how to involve him or herself in the milk price support payment program overseen by the State. On the heels of high fuel prices, low milk prices, and uncooperative weather, the Legislature and Gov. Jim Douglas in July agreed to dole out $8.5 million to Vermont farmers in the form of monthly, emergency payments. This decision was made to stem the lack of support given to farmers by the Bush administration. Of that promised sum, $6.1 million has been distributed. Of the remaining $2.4 million, the Douglas administration has its sights set on distributing only $225,000 in total, over this month and next. The next Ag Secretary must work both to ensure that promised monies get distributed, and pressure Washington, D.C., to do its part.

Another challenge our new Ag Secretary will face is cleaning up the mess left behind by Kerr. When he leaves office Dec. 15, he leaves behind a legacy of mistrust, obfuscation and doublespeak. Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the series of meetings held around the state last summer concerning premises registration. Charged with educating the public about this controversial plan, the Agency of Agriculture proceeded to sidestep that request, instead holding hearings and flat-out promoting the plan. Pressed about the educational component and the intent of the hearings, it seemed at times that no two agency employees could provide the same answer. In the end, Kerr reversed his position on the plan and took it off the table, citing concerns about privacy at the federal level. This came after weeks of denying that premises registration and federal plans for a National Animal Identification System were linked. In the end, he admitted to the County Courier, “The thing’s all balled up.”

Kerr also created a split in Vermont’s agricultural community, due in part to his connections with the nation’s corporate ag industry. These connections led to an atmosphere of mistrust and divisiveness, not just between Kerr and certain farmers, but between farmers, in general.

This is why the next Ag Secretary must be someone firmly entrenched in Vermont’s agricultural way of life, someone who understands the past while also having a firm grasp on where the state’s farmers can and should go in the future.

This person must be as much a teacher as a leader, as much a listener as a speaker, as much a farmer as a bureaucrat.

This person must understand that for a good number of farms in Vermont, it is a matter of change-or-die. He or she must realize that in 21st century Vermont, farming involves more than growing corn, baling hay and milking cows. Yes, this is the idyllic vision in our mind’s eye, but reality bears out much more than that. Dairy farming, organic farming, bio-engineered crop farming, turkey farming, cheese making, sugaring, agritourism, subsistence farming, and more – the next Ag Secretary must have a mind that can grasp the diversity of Vermont’s agricultural lifestyles.

Otherwise, in the not-too-distant future, we may not need an Agriculture Secretary at all.

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