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Published March 15, 2009, 08:09 PM

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack: Budget maintains farm safety net

With his 2010 budget, President Obama is doing what he pledged to do during the campaign. He’s investing in our rural economy and providing farmers with protection from unforeseeable natural disasters and market disruptions. This budget seeks to provide family farmers the stability and predictability they need to stay in business.

By Tom Vilsack

WASHINGTON — These are extraordinary economic times. President Barack Obama told the American people openly and candidly that we face a trillion-dollar deficit, a financial crisis and a costly recession. Now, we must be equally honest with ourselves about how we are prioritizing spending of our precious tax dollars.

As a former mayor of a small town and governor of Iowa, I know how families struggle during tough economic times. Right now at kitchen tables across the country, families are making tough decisions as they weigh needs and consider urgencies. Should they put hard-earned dollars into short-term demands or longer-term investments that give them a leg up on a better future?

Just like these families, the government — with limited budget dollars and an inherited economic crisis — is making tough choices now for long-term gain.

With his 2010 budget, Obama is doing what he pledged to do during the campaign. He’s investing in our rural economy and providing farmers with protection from unforeseeable natural disasters and market disruptions.

This budget seeks to provide family farmers the stability and predictability they need to stay in business.

It improves health care in our communities, offering doctors and nurses incentives to work in rural areas. It increases broadband capacity and the technology that connects rural America to the global economy. The president’s budget also gives rural America the opportunity to play a leading role in renewable energy and the green economy of the 21st century.

In short, the president is investing in the economic security and prosperity of rural America.

At the same time, the president is making tough choices critical to moving our economy forward.

The president’s budget calls for the implementation of a hard cap on farm program payments. The proposal would establish a maximum level of $250,000 in farm payments. It also calls for improved targeting of direct payments to those who really need support.

Currently, marketing-loan gains and loan deficiency payments go to both producers that need them as well as those that don’t, meaning there is no effective payment cap in place. In addition, direct payments are provided to large operations and done so regardless of crop prices, losses or even whether the land is still in production.

I acknowledge that capping farm program payments and tightening eligibility for direct payments may not be popular with some of North Dakota and Minnesota farmers or producers, but we must remember that direct payments were never meant to be around this long. They were temporary payments in the 1996 farm bill, and although they were scheduled to expire, they were included in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, at a cost to taxpayers of about $5.2 billion per year.

In these tough economic times, it’s important for us to make choices that will prevent future generations from being saddled with overwhelming debt. We all must share in the near-term pain that will put our country on a path toward economic recovery.

I want to be clear that cutting these subsidies does not leave these farmers without a safety net. Because these cuts in farm subsidies do not affect access to other farm programs — counter-cyclical and disaster payments, crop insurance, conservation programs and the new Average Crop Revenue Election program — farmers will still have a robust safety net to protect them from volatile markets and weather conditions.

In addition, the president’s drive toward energy independence and commitment to addressing climate change will provide producers with new sources of revenue — from renewable-energy production to alternate sources of income from emerging markets for clean air, clean water and wildlife habitat.

With our nation in the depths of economic crisis, it’s time for all of us to rethink our priorities and address the nation’s most pressing needs. We’re in this together.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, is U.S. secretary of agriculture.

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