Sunday, July 19, 2009

U.S. Cabinet officials visit Pittsylvania County

By Matt Tomsic

July 18, 2009

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stressed the importance of government support for rural Americans during the recession while in Pittsylvania County on Saturday.

The two secretaries said farmers need to explore production of alternate energy sources and that the government will financially help those taking on such innovation. They hosted a community forum, allowing citizens the chance to ask them questions. Earlier in the day, they visited Piedmont Bioproducts, which is a cooperative that is exploring petroleum replacement products and environmental enhancement.

More than 250 people packed onto Buddy Mayhew’s farm in Blairs for a community forum with Vilsack and Chu. Some sat in brown folding chairs under a tin roof held up by steel crossbeams. Others sat under a white tent behind the structure. Some residents leaned against the crossbeams or the tent’s supports after seating filled up.

A single podium stood in front of a stage.

Rep. Tom Perriello, D-5th District spoke first.

“I’ve been bragging about you an awful lot up in Washington,” he said. “Telling everyone that we are at the cutting edge of Southside Virginia.”

Perriello said he has learned a lot about the opportunities that are available. He said the community will survive the tough times and lead “the commonwealth and lead the country in areas that we’re frankly better at than anybody else.”

He introduced Vilsack, who spoke about federal aid and government programs that are available to rural areas.

“This has been a difficult time, and so the president was very insistent on putting together a stimulus program,” he said. “In the short term, one goal was to allow people to transition during tough times.”

He said that’s why the government extended unemployment benefits and gave tax relief to working families.

Vilsack also said the government will be installing broadband access into rural communities that lack it.

“That’s the kind of infrastructure that people want built,” he said.

He also spoke about the climate change bill that Congress passed. The bill helps farmers transition to the use and production of alternate energy forms. He said the USDA has analyzed the problem and found that increased costs will be offset by income opportunities.

“In my lifetime I have not seen this kind of investment,” Vilsack said.

He also stressed the importance of keeping rural farms in business.

“It’s about the values system that is represented in areas and communities just like this,” Vilsack said. “I think it’s at the heart of what makes America a special place.”

Vilsack then introduced Chu, who talked about energy alternatives for the country and the importance of investing in those alternatives soon.

“What this country has, perhaps more than any other country in the world, is an agricultural resource,” Chu said.

The country can use extra agricultural products to grow energy sources and decrease the dependence on imported oil, which accounts for 60 percent of the oil we use, he said.

Chu also spoke about weatherization, which would make homes more energy efficient and save consumers money on their utility bills.

The Department of Energy also is investing in centers that research the technology and science behind alternative energy sources, Chu said.

He finished his speech with a hockey analogy about Wayne Gretzky.

“He’s not a rough and tumble kind of guy,” Chu said. “He’s a skinny guy. So how is he arguably the world’s best hockey player? He said, ‘It’s how I positioned myself on the ice. I skated to where the puck is going to be, not where it’s been.’”

The United States needs to be doing the same thing. Chu said, “Let’s figure out where the world is going, let’s recognize this, use our ingenuity, use our resources, and let’s take advantage of it.”

After the secretary of energy’s speech, the three politicians took questions.

Constituents asked about ways to streamline governmental bureaucracy, the future of nuclear power, uranium mining and solar power.

The three politicians answered the questions thoroughly, saying they were trying to make interaction with their departments and the government easier. Chu and Vilsack also stressed the need for innovation and investment in nuclear and solar energy as long as both could be done safely.

Throughout the speeches and questions, a breeze blew in from the audience’s back, and a nearby rooster crowed.

Afterward, Coy Harville, the chairman of the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors, gave Chu and Vilsack Pittsylvania County afghans and Jefferson cups.

The community forum marked the end of the cabinet members’ day in Pittsylvania County.

Earlier, they toured Piedmont Bioproducts. Both politicians talked about their tour during their speeches, saying that the business is doing the work of the future. Both were impressed with its operations.

Ken Moss, the president of the business, led the tour. He showed them the company’s farmland and plant. Chu and Vilsack asked Moss questions throughout the tour. And Chu even offered some advice at the end.

The men were in the plant looking at the production equipment when Chu made a comment about the silver pipes that turned at right angles. He said the sharper angles required more energy to push the contents through the turns.

“The bends cost the most amount of money,” Chu said. “Big circles reduce the resistance a lot. These are all the wrong bends.”

“They’re the only ones we could afford at the time,” Moss replied, laughing.

Residents said they were impressed with the politicians’ visit after the community forum.

Carter Elliott and his son, Tres, said they both learned a lot about energy and especially solar panels. They came because Carter, 63, is a dairy farmer in Rustburg, which is outside of Lynchburg. Vilsack devoted the beginning of his speech to the particularly tough times dairy farmers were having and what the government was doing to help. Both men said they were impressed with the two secretaries and that it was the first time anything like that had happened in the area.

Marvin Moss, 51, of Pittsylvania County, said he thought Vilsack and Chu were “absolutely great.

“I think it will have a lasting effect on the community,” he added.

President Barack Obama named Vilsack as the leader of his administration’s Rural Tour, which is visiting communities in states throughout the country. Vilsack will visit Alaska, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio in the next few months.

The tour is an attempt by the Obama administration to tell local citizens how it’s revitalizing and rebuilding rural America. Another goal is to give those citizens a way to tell his administration their concerns.

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