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USDA Road Show In Guayama Draws Hundreds Of Farmers

Bush administration’s Lou Gallegos leads outreach effort


February 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

"The adminisration of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy is also the administration of ‘No Farmer Left Behind,’" says U.S. Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Lou Gallegos.

Gallegos, in Puerto Rico to meet with farmers at a forum that included a briefing on new provisions in the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill as well as presentations by 13 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies, spoke with CARIBBEAN BUSINESS about the benefits of the outreach effort and the latest developments at the USDA.

"The 2002 Farm Bill has many changes and new provisions that are designed to benefit the nation’s young farmers and minority farmers," said Gallegos. "The purpose of events like this one, which we’re holding throughout the nation, is to make farmers aware of these changes."

Gallegos said the new farm bill, which sets federal agricultural policy for the rest of the decade, puts greater emphasis on conservation and research programs and includes a full array of updated credit programs. "We’re targeting minority farmers, beginning farmers, and limited-resource farmers with credit and grant programs that are designed to enable them to acquire the land and equipment they need," said Gallegos.

Insurance programs also remain a vital component of the USDA’s services to the farming community. Gallegos also said the department’s several technical assistance programs are more relevant now than ever before, given the importance of continuing education for today’s farmers.

About 70 local USDA employees accompanied the Bush administration appointee, a native of northern New Mexico and a former chief of staff to New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, to the forum at the Guayama convention center.

Participating agencies under the USDA umbrella included the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Risk Management Agency, the Agricultural Marketing Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Cooperative State Research, Education & Extension Service.

A mammoth agency

As assistant secretary for administration, Gallegos oversees operations at one of the federal government’s largest agencies. He told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS the USDA has more than 100,000 employees in 24,000 offices around the world "The U.S. Forest Service represents about half of the department," Gallegos said.

The USDA’s annual budget tops $70 billion, and Gallegos acknowledged the return of a federal budget deficit is likely to put increasing pressure on the department’s budget. "Growth in certain areas will be constrained," he said. "Obviously, the priority now is homeland security and several agencies are being to asked to make a sacrifice, and they will."

In fact, the USDA is in the process of shedding some 2,300 employees ascribed to its Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (Aphis), which is being incorporated into the new Department of Homeland Security. Aphis is particularly well known in Puerto Rico for its baggage checkpoints at the entrance to the island’s principal airports.

Gallegos said he has just finished wading through a landmark report entitled "Urgent Business for America: Revitalizing the Federal Government for the 21st Century," issued by the National Commission on the Public Service, known as the Volcker Commission because it is headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.

"The national emergency, which led to the massive reorganization of disparate agencies with responsibility for homeland security, is a wake-up call to the government-wide need for mission focus and managerial flexibility," wrote the commission in the report, released last month.

"You should always be looking at what you shouldn’t be doing anymore," said Gallegos. "It’s about getting more for what you are spending--that is, a better return on your investment--and not having any sacred cows."

For example, because of its enormous size, the USDA is in charge of running the pension plan, known as the Thrift savings plan, for most other federal government agencies. Gallegos said some of the administrative functions related to that role could possibly be turned over to the private sector.

Program trends

Despite the budgetary pressures, core USDA programs such as the Nutritional Assistance Program (PAN), the National School Lunch Program, and the Women, Infants & Children (WIC) program, all of which directly benefit hundreds of thousands of Puerto Rico residents, have received significant increases in recent years.

Puerto Rico received more than $1.3 billion in PAN funding last year, and that sum is expected to exceeds $1.4 billion this year. "The WIC program is also getting higher funding levels," said Gallegos.

With regard to all three nutrition-related programs, Gallegos said the promotion of healthy diets and lifestyles is becoming increasingly important. "These programs were originally designed to fight hunger," said Gallegos. "Now, we have to be more concerned about fighting obesity."

Gallegos said the nation’s obesity problem has serious adverse health effects. "The Hispanic population has the highest rate of increase in Type 2 diabetes," Gallegos pointed out with concern. "We’re seeing young kids get Type 2 diabetes, which is directly related to poor diets." The official said he’s pushing for the USDA to expand its educational role to help combat the problem.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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