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WisBusiness: USDA's Vilsack hears complaints from small organic farmers

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By Gregg Hoffmann

WEST SALEM - U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said he's using the Obama Administration's “Rural Tour” to listen. On Thursday he got an earful from about 250 organic farmers and their supporters, who are concerned about what they consider unfair practices by big corporations in the dairy industry.

The group rallied at the La Crosse Interstate Fair before a community forum featuring Vilsack, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Gov. Jim Doyle. Vilsack came to the rally and heard the farmers’ pleas.

“In general, organic farmers are very positive about what is coming out of the Obama administration so far,” said Cornucopia Institute’s Mark Kastel in an interview before the rally. “We realize they inherited a mess from the Bush administration.

“What we want is for Secretary Vilsack to know the gravity of the situation that many organic farmers are facing right now,” said Kastel, whose organization advocates for organic farming.

Milk prices have fallen, in part because of an overall soft market, but also because some large companies -- such as Dean Foods, HP Hood of Boston and Aurora Dairy -- are producing milk through so-called “factory farms” and cutting out small and medium organic farmers, Kastel said.

“Independent organic farmers built the industry, and now are being in essence fired by these large companies,” Kastel said. “These are people who have done the right things for their families, for the environment and for animal husbandry. They have invested thousands, tens of thousands, to become organic.”

The farmers also maintain that much of the milk produced in the large confined animal farms is not really organic.

Vilsack listened to Kastel and some farmers, including a tearful woman who held her grandchild and questioned whether the family farm would be around to be passed on to the next generation.

“I have a sense and an idea for the stress of trying to preserve not only a business in the farm but a way of life,” Vilsack said, adding that in the 1980s as a “small town” lawyer he represented farmers who were losing their farms.

Vilsack said the USDA has started to take steps that “will level the playing field and give small and medium-sized producers a chance in the marketplace.”

He also said USDA will reopen cases in which violations of organic rules were found or suspected. Most notably mentioned by those at the rally was one in which Aurora Dairy was found to have violated the rules, but according to Kastel the Bush Administration did not prosecute because it maintained the rules were “vague” as to what constituted organic.

After the community forum, some of the organic farmers held a “symbolic milk dump” to emphasize their points.

“The Obama administration promised openness and to listen to us,” said John Kinsman, president of Family Farm Defenders. “We want to make the administration live up to that. So far they are talking to some of the same people who created the problem. We need them to listen and to take action now.”

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