Central Valley

Ag secretary Vilsack to visit Modesto area next week

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will visit Modesto next week to hear about troubles in the dairy business and other issues.

The visit, Vilsack's first to the area since being appointed by President Barack Obama, will take place Wednesday at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center.

The event is part of the administration's Rural Tour, which has taken Vilsack and a few other Cabinet members to 16 stops around the country this summer, said Caleb Weaver, press secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The visit was arranged with the help of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, who is on the House Agriculture Committee.

"I have had a number of meetings with him in Washington," Cardoza said. "He's a very gracious leader, and I'm excited to have him out here."

Cardoza said the visit will give Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, a chance to see the diversity of California agriculture compared with the Midwest.

The USDA deals with many facets of farming, including exports, food safety, pest detection and the health of the bees that pollinate many crops. Vilsack helped create a task force on California water issues.

Tough times for dairies

The dairy industry, the top farm sector in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and statewide, is in especially tough times.

Milk prices plummeted at the start of 2009, as the recession reduced global demand and a surplus of dairy products built up. The prices, far below the cost of production, are expected to force about 10 percent of the state's dairy farmers out of business this year.

The USDA has responded with several efforts, including export subsidies and increased use of dairy products in nutrition programs.

"We look forward to the opportunity to meet with Secretary Vilsack and thank him for his efforts on behalf of California dairy producers," said Turlock-area farmer Ray Souza, president of Modesto-based Western United Dairymen, in a news release.

"There is much more that needs to be done. This meeting is a great opportunity for dairy producers to let Secretary Vilsack know how they are being impacted by this economic crisis."

Agriculture secretaries visiting the north valley are nothing new. Acting Secretary Chuck Conner came to Stockton last year, and Secretary Mike Johanns was in Modesto in 2007.

Modesto has produced two secretaries — Ann Veneman, who served from 2001 to 2005, and Richard Lyng, 1986 to 1989.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.