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USDA official touts programs to boost farmers during pandemic

EDNEYVILLE — Promoting the “farmer-facing parts of USDA,” U.S. Agriculture Undersecretary Bill Northey visited apple and tomato growers from Henderson County and Christmas tree growers from Fraser fir country and watched a farm machine cleanly harvest bluegrass sod from a field on Gilliam Road.

Northey’s “listen and learn” trip to the county started with a meeting with apple and tomato growers at Kenny Barnwell’s packinghouse and finished with a specialty crop roundtable at Turf Mountain Sod’s 40-acre field of bluegrass.
A fourth generation corn farmer, Northey served as Iowa’s secretary of agriculture from 2006 until he joined the Trump administration in 2018.
When he first joined the USDA, the new Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue, pledged to run “the most efficient, most effective, most customer-focused part of the federal government,” Northey said. “When he said that, I confess he kind of had me. … He listens and he cares and he has absolutely pushed that all through USDA.”
The Coronavirus Food Assistance Program has boosted fruit, vegetable and grain growers plus dairies and beef and pork producers.
“It’ll probably be the widest delivered program we’ve ever had at USDA,” Northey said. “Nearly every farmer out there has the potential to be touched through the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program. In most cases, not going to make everybody whole, even close. It’s not perfect but it’s designed to get some dollars out, to soften that blow.”
Another program, the Farmers of Family food boxes, buys produce, dairy products and meat that had lost markets and shifts them to people going hungry during the pandemic. The program also boosts the delivery side of the farm economy.
“All the folks that deliver food and all agriculture products are absolutely essential in the middle there and that has been very helpful as well,” he said. “USDA is supposed to be there to be able to help. I’ve been a lot of places where folks have said that some of these programs have been able to bridge a pretty big gap that they didn’t see coming.”
In chatting with the local growers, Northey heard that, “For the most part, insurance is really important.” Apple growers told him about freeze damage and hail damage this season. They also praised the Farmers to Families Food Box program, which has been buying apples, tomatoes and other produce from Henderson County growers.
Fred Pittillo, who converted from dairy farming to sod farming in 1987, pointed to the sod harvesting machine. “That one’s a little over $300,000,” he said. He pointed to one behind him with double the capacity. “That one’s a half million.”
“I don’t draw a check anymore,” he said, because he sold the farm to his daughter, Linda Pittillo Bradley, and son, Wade Pittillo.
“The thing that’s important is the law that would let us be able to transfer it from this generation to the next,” he said. “It gives us so much dollars we can have in the estate before we’re taxed to death. The people that understand farming at the USDA know the importance of what we do and how we do it.”
Amber Church Scott, president of the N.C. Christmas Tree Association, touted the economic power of her industry. Christmas tree sales contribute $90 million to the state’s economy. Ninety-four percent of live trees sold are Fraser firs, and most are grown in six major Christmas tree counties — Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Jackson, Mitchell and Watauga. Since 1980, the association has been promoting the Fraser as “the perfect Christmas tree,” she said.
Northey observed that production of the two specialty crops his visit highlighted — sod and Christmas trees — was superior to Iowa’s output.
“We’ve got some sod farms in Iowa, not quite like what you’ve got here,” he said.
He apologized for not buying a Christmas tree from North Carolina growers but assured the farmers that he does obtain one from the ground.
“I get one off a cousin of my mom’s,” who runs a “150-year-old heritage farm that our family first settled back in 1860,” he said. “We get a Christmas tree from there, but it is a real Christmas tree.”