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Published March 29, 2010, 08:13 AM

System problems delay farm disaster payments

WASHINGTON — Congress could speed up payments under the new permanent farm disaster program by changing the rules, but it would cost more money, Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller said March 25.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Congress could speed up payments under the new permanent farm disaster program by changing the rules, but it would cost more money, Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Jim Miller said March 25.

Congress established the Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments program, which is known as SURE, in the 2008 farm bill so USDA’s Farm Service Agency could make farm disaster payments without asking Congress for a supplemental appropriation. But the program rules say that USDA cannot distribute the money until after the end of the crop marketing year when the agency has income and price data to determine losses.

Farmers have complained that the money will come too late to save them from bankruptcy. The slowness in payments was one factor that led Senate Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.., to propose a special farm disaster package this year.

Miller and his staff testified on operations of the Farm Service Agency, which distributes farm subsidies, the Foreign Agricultural Service, which runs trade promotion and food aid programs, and the Risk Management Agency, which runs the crop insurance program.

Pressure

Under questioning from House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., Miller said Congress could “accelerate the process” by changing the 2008 farm bill to provide for advance payments and by reconsidering what data is used to determine the commodity prices used in the calculations.

“This would come at some costs,” Miller said, adding that he was only providing technical information to the subcommittee, not making an administration proposal.

Under pressure from DeLauro, Miller and FSA Administrator Jonathan Coppess made commitments not to divert any more money from FSA’s information technology account to other purposes. DeLauro said the commitments were necessary if the subcommittee is to consider seriously the administration’s request for additional money in fiscal year 2011 to update FSA’s long-troubled computer system. DeLauro said she has not been able to get clear answers from FSA on how money has been spent and that the agency is also late with a January report, with another report due in April.

Miller, a former National Farmers Union official and aide to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the money has been spent to stabilize the current system as well as build a new one, but Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., agreed with DeLauro, telling Miller, “Somebody has to be the mean SOB. Is that you? Maybe Rosa and I together can constitute a two-headed monster?”

Answers unclear

DeLauro also said she had a lot of questions about programs run by the Foreign Agricultural Service. DeLauro questioned why the administration has said that the market access program is “unclear and duplicative” and asked for a cut in that program but still defends it in general while it also has asked for an increase in other trade promotion programs. When DeLauro asked FAS Administrator John Brewer for proof that the trade promotion programs are working and he responded with anecdotes rather than statistics, DeLauro said, “When I can’t get something quantified, I get very nervous. When I go to my campaign and say ‘How many people have you talked to’ and (campaign aides) say, ‘Don’t worry. We’re talking to them,’ I get very nervous.’”

Miller said the agency wants to work more with small exporters to help fulfill President Obama’s goal of doubling all exports within 10 years, but DeLauro said she wants more information on what role agricultural exports will play in achieving that goal.

Risk Management Agency Administrator Bill Murphy told the subcommittee that he hopes to complete negotiations with crop insurance companies for a new five-year standard reinsurance agreement by the end of April.

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