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Vilsack comes home

Christinia Crippes, The Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa –

MOUNT PLEASANT – Christie Vilsack for president in 2016? Let the rumor mill begin.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack received the unconventional question about his wife’s future Friday morning while addressing a crowd at the tractor headquarters during Old Threshers in Mount Pleasant.

Jim Fordice of Rowley lives in the 1st Congressional District, but he’s a fan of 4th Congressional District candidate Christie Vilsack, a Mount Pleasant native who is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Steve King. Fordice hesitated to ask the agriculture secretary the question about his wife’s future political ambitions but couldn’t resist when there was a lull during the town hall meeting.

The audience gave a quiet laughter when Fordice asked his question, but they fell silent quickly to listen to Vilsack’s answer.

“I love my wife. I think she’s crazy, but I love my wife,” Vilsack said, but worried about adding too much more as it was an official agriculture event, and he did not want to get into trouble talking politically.

He concluded by saying, “She’s running for office, and she’s working hard, as hard as anybody I’ve ever seen, and we’ll see what happens.”

Fordice, who has been coming to Old Threshers from his east-central Iowa home since 1969, said he would be pleased if Christie threw her hat in the ring and counts himself among her advocates.

“Oh, sure,” he answered when asked if he’d support the hometown favorite in a presidential bid. “If it ever happens.”

He said he has had pictures taken with her and met her on campaign stops when the now-secretary was making his own bid for the White House but said that’s as best as he knows Christie.

Others less bold than Fordice kept the questions focused on agriculture. Of course, that left several topics open for discussion, because, as the secretary himself learned when he took the job in 2009, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is about more than farming.

Complimented on his department’s work on rural services, Vilsack rattled off the top of his head some statistics about what the USDA has done in the 3 1/2 years he’s headed it:

*â 567,000 guaranteed or direct home loans;

*â 5,500 wastewater treatment facility investments;

*â 58,000 loans for small businesses;

*â 82,000 miles of improved electrical lines; and

*â 7 million Americans with broadband Internet access.

“Essentially what I found was virtually everything a governor does, a USDA secretary does,” said Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and Mount Pleasant mayor.

Beyond rural services, he said the department is dealing with forest fires – 40,000 so far this year – overseeing nutrition programs, encouraging conservation for the recreational tourism industry and for the environment, experimenting with renewable fuel opportunities, helping farmers through the drought and, in between, urging Congress to pass a farm bill so he can continue to address those issues.

Many of the questions Vilsack faced had a similar and somewhat simple answer: Get Congress to pass that five-year farm bill.

“We are certainly encouraged by the fact that so many farm groups and organizations supporting farmers and dairymen are saying to Congress, same message: Pass the bill. Pass the bill,” Vilsack said. “You get that bill passed, you get a new system for dairy. You get a revival of the disaster assistance programs. You get help, maybe that gives you a little bit of a cushion to get through a tough time.”

Of course, it’s easier said than done.

The U.S. Senate passed its version, with a bipartisan majority, but the U.S. House would not take it up. Before the House adjourned for its August recess, lawmakers tried to address the drought by tackling assistance funding for it separately, but the Senate would not take it up because it forced cuts in other programs to fund the drought aid.

On nutrition programs, Vilsack explained the realities of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps, countering some of the misconceptions he anticipated. He said most recipients aren’t on welfare. They are instead mostly senior citizens, working parents, children and disabled people.

Vilsack said while some assume there’s rampant abuse in the program, the error rate is less than 1 percent, and those receiving a little more or a little less than they should is at a historic low of 3.4 percent. For comparison, he said the error rate in crop insurance is about 9 percent.

Vilsack said, though, USDA is working to address that as well.

The secretary also said 14 cents of each dollar of SNAP winds up in farmers’ pockets. He pointed to the stimulative impact SNAP has. According to research firm Moody’s, every dollar spent on SNAP generates $1.73 into the economy.

He also noted the school lunch programs are aiming to be healthier so fewer kids are obese.

“We didn’t get into the obesity situation overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight,” Vilsack said.

But Vilsack said the focus on obesity would return after Old Threshers so he and other attendees could enjoy the fried foods offered on the grounds.

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