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Published May 30, 2011, 05:15 AM

Vilsack touts need for disaster program and crop insurance

WASHINGTON — American farmers and ranchers need a disaster program as well as crop insurance, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the Senate Agriculture Committee’s first hearing on the 2012 farm bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — American farmers and ranchers need a disaster program as well as crop insurance, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at the Senate Agriculture Committee’s first hearing on the 2012 farm bill.

Told by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., that Congress needs to focus on continuing the crop insurance program as the “mainstay” of the farm safety net, the secretary replied: “It depends on what crop you are talking about.”

It’s important to maintain crop insurance, Vilsack said, “but you need to couple that with a disaster package when it’s not enough.”

Vilsack made the statement a day after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said it is vital to maintain the permanent farm disaster program that he and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., authored in the 2008 farm bill. That program, known by the acronym SURE, runs out of money before the 2008 farm bill expires and is one of the 37 programs that will not have baseline funding when Congress takes up the bill.

Safety net for farms

It is important to maintain a safety net for farms of all sizes, Vilsack said. Even though big farms grow most of the food that the United States produces, many producers with sales of under $250,000 often make only $10,000 per year in profit. It’s important to keep these producers on the farm for rural communities to thrive, he said.

Programs to help young farmers are not increasing the number of young farmers to his satisfaction, Vilsack said. He suggested that some program be created, perhaps through the tax code, that would give young farmers credit for sweat equity.

“What we’re doing is OK, but it is not moving that trend line in the right direction,” he said.

Vilsack said he has “no doubt” that the 2012 farm bill will be smaller in budget than the 2008 bill, but he also told the committee that he thinks USDA’s agriculture programs essentially have been “flat-lined” for the past 30 years and that USDA has been a good steward of its money. In light of all the budget reduction proposals, the secretary said he has asked his undersecretaries to analyze what changes could be made to make their divisions more efficient, but he also warned that “cuts will have an impact.”

Limits

He also said Congress should consider President Obama’s proposal to impose stricter on- and off-farm limits on farmers who get subsidies.

Vilsack said he is working the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a policy under which farmers would be given “regulatory certainty” if they follow certain conservation practices.

On the future of ethanol, Vilsack warned the committee not to cut off ethanol tax breaks too quickly. He noted that the biodiesel industry lost 50 percent of production and 12,000 jobs during the year that the biodiesel program was not in effect.

Conrad said he still considers the Europeans to be the Americans’ biggest competitors in world agriculture. An examination of the most recent World Trade Organization data on subsidies, Conrad said, showed that compared with the United States, the European Union provides three times the amount of support for “narrow” farm programs and eight times the amount of support if its programs are looked at more broadly.

In trade negotiations, Conrad said, “they want equal percentage reductions until we fall off the table.”

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., noted that the Risk Management Agency is proposing to change the rules on prevented planting, so that a farmer could not get that coverage on a piece of land if a crop had not been harvested within the last three years.

Thune said that policy would cause problems in northeastern South Dakota, where hundreds of thousands of acres have not been planted for the second year in a row.

Vilsack replied that the agency is trying to balance “the workability and integrity” of the program in the Prairie Pothole Region, where some farmers have put land in ponds and still collected on crop insurance policies, but that he would try to figure out a way to separate the continuous and the occasional cases.

In reaction to a question from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., about the use of conservation programs to deal with the flooding problems near Devils Lake, N.D., Vilsack suggested that Congress give USDA fewer conservation programs, more specific objectives and more flexibility in running the programs to achieve them.

Land use

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a former Agriculture Committee chairman, asked the secretary if he thinks it would be possible to put more American land into production. Vilsack said that most of the 30 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program are likely to remain there because the program has its own benefits and a lot of the land in CRP is not highly productive. The better answer, Vilsack said, is to make the 264 million acres in crops more productive through better use of research and science.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the hearing also should celebrate the achievements of American agriculture. The western edge of the Oklahoma panhandle is enduring the longest drought on record — nearly 220 days without rain, worse than droughts experienced during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, she noted.

“And yet today, there are no dust storms. The topsoil isn’t blowing away. That’s a testament to the good work our farmers and ranchers have done thanks to voluntary conservation efforts in the farm bill,” Stabenow said.

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