Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined key USDA policies and heard loud concerns from dairy farmers during a visit to an agricultural center near Modesto, California today. Secretary Vilsack’s rural forum in Stanislaus County is part of the Obama administration’s effort to rebuild and revitalize rural America. The tour has already made stops in Missouri, Iowa, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana and several other states since the tour launched at the end of July. “To overcome challenges and be successful in a new 21st century economy, President Obama asked that we reach out to people in rural communities across the country to listen, learn and facilitate problem-solving,” said Vilsack. “It is critically important to hear the thoughts, concerns and stories about California’s vision for its future and to collect ideas about how USDA can better serve these communities.” At the forum, Vilsack discussed how the USDA is working to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply, and he outlined the various ways the stimulus package was working for rural Californians, citing grant programs, benefits, and various community projects in the works. Vilsack also announced the availability of $18 million in value added producer grants, a program to assist agricultural producers “to add value to the commodities they produce,” which he noted would likely promote local agricultural development. Though Vilsack discussed a broad range of issues and USDA initiatives, he heard many questions from struggling dairy farmers in the area. “We need help and we need it right away,” without changes in milk changes dairy farms are going to be pushed out of business, one farmer told Vilsack. “This is a nationwide, universal problem,” agreed Vilsack, who outlined export subsidies and USDA milk commodity purchases, as well as the creation of a working group at USDA. However, he admitted that though he would like to do more to help, it was difficult to do so quickly considering current fiscal and political environment in Washington. One farmer told Vilsack that the USDA needed to implement a price floor; she stressed that without a sustained improved milk price California would lose many of its dairy farmers. The plight of dairy producers is starting to become a larger food safety issue, as many consumer advocates believe there is a link between culled dairy cattle entering the beef supply and the increased risk of Salmonella in ground beef, with a special concern for antibiotic-resistant Salmonella. Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture – Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, APHIS