TOPPENISH - Gathering input from Washington farmers and agencies working with local farmers, USDA Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley listened and tried to answer questions at a specially called meeting held in Toppenish yesterday.
"I have one primary purpose here," said Moseley. "It is not to answer every single one of your questions, but rather to help you find the answers to that question."
He said his commitment to farmers is to have someone to serve those in need, and he invited those who feel they aren't receiving the service they need to e-mail him personally.
Moseley called the Thursday morning conference a showing of democracy where concerns are brought straight to the top.
The listening session was dubbed "Better Service Through Public Participation."
"From the top of the USDA the message has been sent. Things are going to be different without diminishing services," said Moseley.
Moseley said that some insinuated that the meeting in the Lower Valley was politically motivated, which he added, "...irritates me."
"If we were here for political reasons you'd see a different kind of meeting," he said.
Moseley said the sessions that have been held in other parts of the United States have already brought changes in the USDA.
For two hours Moseley and other USDA officials directly answered concerns raised by those in attendance.
Toppenish farmer Melbern Krueger questioned Moseley on what is going to be done with the shrinking number of farmers in the United States.
Krueger said there are 3.2 million farmers in the United States and at the present rate in the next three to five years the number of farmers will be cut in half and another 80 percent will retire.
"We're headed for a crisis in this country," said Krueger. "Unfortunately, we are now importing food from third world countries."
With the current state of terrorism, Krueger said he is concerned that ways to poison the country's food supply will be found.
He added that the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) has hurt farmers and that water storage is an issue directly affecting the Lower Valley. Krueger said there is a need for tax-free exemptions for food producers.
"It costs us more to produce a product than the value we're getting out of it," said Krueger.
Krueger said with the price of apples in the supermarket at $1.49 a pound, the farmer is only getting about 15 cents per pound.
"Young people are not going into farming. My son is one of them. I do not want him to go into agriculture," Krueger added.
Moseley responded to Krueger saying that a great majority of agricultural products in the United States are dependent on NAFTA.
Moseley said even 35 percent of his family's pork and soybean operation in Indiana is dependent on trade.
"My grandfather told me something a long time ago," said Moseley. "His comment to me was the land will always be farmed as long as there are resources available."
One of the resources of major concern, not only in the Western states, but across the country, is water.
Moseley believes there is something that pulls people to agriculture. He said he has a daughter who runs the family farm with her husband, and another son who wants to become a farmer.
Both of his children watched as Moseley and his wife in 1998 lost 50 percent of the equity they had built over 32 years of farming. He said that year it cost 43 cents a pound to raise pork and they received 10 cents a pound at market.
He added that even though there are concerns about food being brought into the USA from around the world, consumers are still buying imported food.
"Consumers are always right, whether we believe they are or not," said Moseley.
Luz Gutierrez of the Center for Latino Farmers raised concerns to Moseley that not all farmers, especially those who are minority or disadvantaged, are receiving information on benefits and programs the USDA offers. She said Latino farmers are the largest number of new farmers in Washington and many are not receiving the USDA information or are being represented on county boards. She also requested that term limits be imposed on those serving on county boards.
Moseley said that in August the county board rules changed and 300 counties with a high number of minorities were required to have a Latino or women on the ballot for the county board positions.
"Latinos want to be farmers," said Gutierrez. "They're knocking down our door."
She asked that an assessment of the USDA's outreach programs be completed.
"If we don't see them, then they're not doing outreach, and we aren't seeing them," said Gutierrez.
A beginning Latino farmer who Gutierrez has been working with said he has been filling out lot of paperwork, but hasn't received any answers from the USDA.
Gutierrez said the farmer asked why there are special loans for beginning farmers, but in the end all the money ends up in the same pot that benefits long-time farmers.
Moseley said it is a policy question and one that needs to be looked at.
"Beginning farmers shouldn't be beginning farmers forever," he said, explaining that established farmers should not be eligible for beginning farmer loans and assistance. "I was a beginning farmer and I have a soft spot in my heart for them."
A concern of Yakama Reservation farmer Tom Gasseling, who raises hops, apples and mint, is that farmers in Washington can't compete not only internationally, but with other producers in the United States because of yearly raises in minimum wages in the state.
"We also need to have a fair and level playing field here in the United States," said Gasseling. "We don't want a hand-out, we just want some kind of fair and level playing field."
Retired dairy farmer Hank Vanderstoel of Sunnyside also voiced his concerns about having a level playing field in the dairy industry.
He said that this year the Northwest dairy farmers were paid the lowest price ever for milk, but the public paid the highest prices for milk.
"That doesn't make sense," said Vanderstoel.
He added that the push is for larger and larger farming operations.
Moseley said that in today's market the size of a farm is based on what it takes for a family to live.
But, he added, contrary to belief, the USDA is seeing an increase nationwide is the number of smaller farms that are being started.