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Ag Deputy Secretary hears local farmers' concerns

By Leslie Parsons (Middletown Press - 3/29/10)

  MACRH 29, 2010 --

Dozens of farmers met with public officials at Greenbacker Farms on Wallingford Road Saturday morning. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan discussed issues concerning farmers, which ranged from the price of milk to the public perception of the humanity of animal slaughter.

The discussants were first led on a tour of the facilities by Melissa Greenbacker, who took the group on a tour of the farm's cow barn and milking parlor.

"There are more politicians here than we thought there was going to be," said part-owner Ricky Greenbacker. "But that's a good thing," he said, adding that it was good to have "someone from Washington to listen to you."

Before Merrigan fielded queries in a question-and-answer session moderated by Executive Director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau Association Steve Reviczky, she was welcomed by Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, and Joe Courtney, D-2.

"Your presence is exactly what we need at this time," Courtney said.

"It's wonderful to have someone in your position who understands that there is agriculture (here)," Delauro said. "We have someone in the deputy secretary who knows all about these various areas."

"I understand the importance of having agriculture in a close-knit community," said Merrigan, who is from Greenfield, Mass.

In her opening remarks, Merrigan was quick to address the concern about dairy prices that were on the minds of many of the farmers who attended. Dairy prices are set by a national formula.

"Things are going downhill again," she said, adding that the Dairy Adjustment committee will soon be meeting to discuss the issue.

"We have a short-term problem, and we need long-term fixes as well," she said.

Her focus, however, wasn't only on dairy farming.

"There's not a part of the community that's not hurting," Merrigan said.

Merrigan also spoke about initiatives to educate the public on where their food comes from. She spoke about work she did with children in Massachusetts.

"I didn't believe people when they said that kids thought their food comes from the grocery store," she said. After helping the children grow a garden and learn where food came from, she was surprised by the results.

"It was really stunning for me to realize that, yes, kids didn't know where their food comes from," she said.

These matters arose again when she began fielding questions from local farmers.

David Zemelsky, who operates the USDA Organic Certified farm Starlight Gardens in Durham, asked Merrigan about how to make better, more locally-grown foods affordable to the public.

"I do believe that families can afford a healthy diet," she said. She added that the Child Nutrition Reauthorization is focused on finding healthier alternatives for school lunches, which she said were the primary source of nutrition for many school-aged children.

"The school-lunch program needs to do a better job," she said. "Farm to School should be a part of that." Farm to School is a program that connects farmers with schools in their area to provide school children with healthy foods and education them on how that food gets to their plate.

She added that there is work being done to put EBT machines in farmer's markets, so that families on programs such as Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) can purchase locally-grown, healthy foods.

Merrigan also praised the work of Michelle Obama and her efforts to promote better nutrition for children, saying that Obama is "going to be keeping a close watch" on child nutrition initiatives.

Tom Dexter, of Pine Grove Farms in Southington, asked about animal-rights protestors and their complaints against animal farms.

Merrigan said that slaughter availability is being mapped out in regions and analyzed, and that funding is being put into bringing mobile slaughter units to animal farms. Mobile slaughter units are USDA-inspected vehicles that can travel to small farms and allow for animals to be slaughtered and meat to be refrigerated within the vehicle. She added that smaller slaughter facilities are undergoing an economic analysis.

A livestock nutritionist who attended the event also spoke about the public's perception of meat farming.

"We need to help our images as farmers with the American people." he said. "These aren't pets out here. There are things we do for the health of the animals that are perceived as bad." He asked that the representatives "look at that and think about what we're facing here."

"The USDA should look at sustainability ... and making it easier for some of these farmers to apply for (funding)," said Gary Crump, who owns Priam Vineyards in Colchester.

Merrigan said that there are programs working to streamline the grant-application process to provide "one-stop shopping" for funding for farmers.

After fielding questions, Merrigan and other public officials spoke one-on-one with the farmers who attended the event.

"I think she's heard from a lot of us, and I think she's a good person who is listening to the farmer," Zemelsky said. "Until the government sets the priority of keeping farms viable, it's going to be a long, uphill battle."



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