IA corn leader questions USDA ‘local food’ tilt

The chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board is expressing concern about the USDA’s shift in emphasis toward locally grown and organic foods. 

Tim Burrack of Arlington, Iowa is attending USDA’s annual outlook conference in Washington this week. He says modern agriculture has come under attack from many conference speakers and attendees. 

“I’ve farmed for 37 years and worked with the government and everything—and what I’m hearing out here is radically different than what has taken place in the first 36 years of my career,” Burrack says. “And I just got up and told them so—I said, ‘this is not the USDA that people in the Midwest are familiar with’.” 

Burrack directed his comments to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who is leading the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program. 

“And she said, ‘well, you know, the USDA is a big place and there’s room in the tent for everybody’.  So I guess that’s the attitude that we all need to work under,” says Burrack. “The concern is that traditional production agriculture has provided for this nation a very safe and very low-cost food supply.  And a lot of the emphasis you’re hearing here today is—well, you know, it won’t be cheap food like what we’ve been familiar with.  It’s a higher cost source of food—but they say we’re going to do it all.” 

We asked Burrack if he’s surprised that the shift in USDA emphasis has come under Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor with strong Midwestern roots. 

“No—because it’s very apparent the direction is coming from above him.” And Burrack adds, “I was amazed at the number of USDA employees—and attendees like myself—that made a comment to me afterwards saying, ‘thank you for saying what a lot of us are thinking’.” 

At the same, Burrack says it’s also apparent that those opposed to modern agriculture are feeling very emboldened by the Obama administration’s policies.

AUDIO: Tim Burrack (8 min MP3)

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  • Let’s pretend Mr. Burrack is in a restaurant with one of his children or grandchildren. (I’m assuming he has one). He has a choice: order a hamburger that came from the flesh of cows that had been given hormones and antibiotics, or choose one from cattle raised on grass, with higher levels of beneficial fatty acids and no hormone or antibiotic residues. I’m assuming Mr. Burrack loves his children and grandchildren, just as I love mine. That’s why I choose local, organic meat whenever I can. Plus, by buying beef directly from my local farmer, I help her stay on her farm. I’ll gladly pay a little more up front for a strong local economy, a cleaner, safer environment, and healthy children.
    “Modern” agriculture is organic and local. Conventional farming, heavily dependent on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals is outdated and dangerous.
    Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D. (registered dietitian, Columbia, MO)

  • I eat locally because it provides me with food of higher quality with fewer negative environmental and social side effects. I’m happy to pay a bit more, and I can afford it. Why exactly is Burrack afraid of me? Farmers should be happy to get higher prices.

    And who says that Iowa corn farming is “safe”? Tell that to the fishermen in Louisiana who have a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico to contend with, where there is no oxygen for any harvestable marine life.

  • Ken,

    Good morning, was at the session where Tim Burrack spoke. Was surprised though that the reporters in attendance did not also interview the 6th generation traditional cattle rancher from Oregon who spoke so passionately about the importance of regional and local food systems and the USDA encouragement to a more balanced food system–I recall this rancher was very supportive of USDA’s modest programs to support such traditional ranching operations to access local demand–were you able to interview him as well as Burrack? I recall he was close by to Burrack in the back of the room and would have been willing to go “on the record”. Somehow he was ignored. Give a ring when you have a moment at 202-549-3308, would like to catch up on this issue.


  • Grow up Burrack. The face of agriculture is changing and the USDA needs to change with it. All other industries have faced changes in the past 30 years, so why should agriculture be any different?
    What do you think of all your inputs washing down the Mississippi? Let’s just keep the USDA and farming industry the same and allow the entire ocean to be overrun with fertilizer from conventional ag.

  • What is eating local? For all of the people from the Midwest more than likely the beef, pork, chicken, turkey, milk, and eggs that you eat came closer than you think (less than 500 miles). I eat the beef and pork that is raised on the farm I grew up and raised with modern production standards. I understand that the meat I eat does not come raised with traces of antibiotics and hormones because we use them responsibly. We follow strict guidelines from the USDA and FDA that have withdrawal periods for any antibiotics or hormones used, if traces are found in the meat it means big trouble for the farmer. Milk is continually tested for any traces of antibiotics and hormones. If a trace of estrogen (which is naturally occurring in all mammals after they give birth) the whole tank is rejected. This is farmers lively hoods and we eat the meat and drink the milk raised on our farms and even feed them to our families, we want the safest product for them.

    As for the fertilizers and inputs that are used on crops they are used responsibly. There is absolutely no proof that the Hypoxy Zone in the gulf is caused by Iowa farmers. Farmers work on slim margins and only put on the fields what they need to grow a crop that provides food, fuel, fiber and feed for the entire world. In my opinion the people that overuse fertilizer and other chemicals are the people in town who have bright green lawns. They have not gone through classes and seminars that teach them the right amounts and times to place inputs onto their lawns like farmers to.

    I think what Mr. Burrack was trying to say was in America we have the option to choose between organic, natural and conventionally raised food and the USDA should support all of the producers. Saying that one is better than the other is false and consumers are lucky to have that choice. However, there are more and more people in this country who are going hungry, and for those people I promise you that farmers in America are providing you with not only the safest but the most affordable food in the entire the world. And they are doing it by protecting the land and the animals that they have been entrusted to take care of.

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