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Published October 11, 2011, 09:19 AM

Vilsack says safety net, rural grants needed in next farm bill

WASHINGTON — Despite his earlier statements that the Obama administration would let Congress write the next farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack commented Oct. 3 and 4 on several sections of the bill, while there were indications that congressional leaders are preparing for the supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction to take some action on agriculture.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Despite his earlier statements that the Obama administration would let Congress write the next farm bill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack commented Oct. 3 and 4 on several sections of the bill, while there were indications that congressional leaders are preparing for the supercommittee in charge of deficit reduction to take some action on agriculture.

“There is a belief the committee will set a budgetary framework,” Vilsack said in an Oct. 3 interview with Agweek.

He added that he thinks it would be more difficult to organize a farm bill in 2012

Vilsack said USDA is helping all congressional leaders who ask for technical assistance on their bills. He added that he thinks the farm bill should be called “the farm, food and rural development bill.”

“We keep phrasing this in a limited way,” Vilsack said, referring to the term “farm bill.”

Keys to the bill

Vilsack said the bill needs a safety net to assure farmers’ survival, but also needs rural development programs, and called specifically for the continuation of the Rural Energy for America grants known as REAP and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program and programs for microenterprise development.

Earlier, in a speech to a conference on rural development sponsored by USDA and the Ford Foundation, he also told rural development advocates that they should be prepared for the merger of rural development programs.

“The level of funding is anybody’s guess,” he said.

Although House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and the American Farm Bureau Federation have called for an examination of the nutrition programs to look for waste, fraud and inefficiencies, Vilsack said in the interview he is reluctant to cut the food stamp program, saying that its budget authority already was reduced to pay for teacher salaries and to make settlements for farmers who had sued USDA for discrimination in the Pigford II case.

“You can reduce the funding, but you cannot reduce the need,” Vilsack said.

Oct. 4, in the question-and-answer period after a speech to the Consumer Federation of America, Vilsack said he thinks nutrition programs come under so much scrutiny because people have a view going back to the 1980s that most beneficiaries are on welfare.

Today, only 8 percent of food stamp beneficiaries get cash welfare payments, Vilsack said. Of the other 92 percent, many are elderly people “who played by the rules” or children of working families who “are playing by the rules.”

Vilsack also said there is not enough of an understanding of the multiplier effect that nutrition programs have in the economy, noting that the purchasing power generated by those programs translates into jobs as people stock, truck, package, process and grow those foods.

Asked at the CFA conference how to preserve the budget for fruits and vegetables, Vilsack said, “You have a great champion in (Senate Agriculture Committee Chair) Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.).”

Stabenow is not only interested in fruits and vegetables, but they are a key element in Michigan’s diverse agricultural economy, he noted.

“The greater emphasis in this country on the consumption of fruits and vegetables makes it easier (to maintain the budget for those programs) than in 2008,” he added.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told a recent United Fresh Produce Association meeting that he would fight to protect programs for low-income people and for the fruit and vegetable distribution programs. A United Fresh lobbyist said the group is asking Congress to maintain the fruit and vegetable program at a cost of $150 million per year.

Vilsack added that the administration strongly supports diversified agriculture and recently visited a farm in California that delivers vegetables to 40,000 customers every week.

“It will not be easy,” Vilsack said, “but I’ll be keeping an eye on it.”

Subsidies, specialties

But when asked whether subsidies should be brought into line with the foods that nutritionists say are better for people, Vilsack said that many people do not understand the amount of assistance that the specialty crops get from the government. Analysts consider the direct payments that crop farmers get to be subsidies, but often do not consider the government’s purchases of fruits and vegetables for nutrition programs, the expansion of crop insurance for specialty crops or the research that addresses the problems caused by invasive species and pests that affect fruits and vegetables and trees.

He also noted that prices for the program crops such as corn, wheat and cotton have gone up in only 10 of the past 60 years, and that the only way those farmers have been able to stay in business is to grow in size.

Vilsack also told the audience not to take for granted the fact that the U.S. grows more food than it can consume.

China may buy U.S. debt, Vilsack said, “but we own their soybeans. It’s very hard to eat a debenture.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, also told the CFA conference that she is developing a “local agriculture” title for the farm bill, but is trying to get bipartisan support for it before she introduces it.

Pingree envisions a title that would bring together those programs that benefit small producers so that they can be improved in policy terms, she said. In an interview, Pingree said she had considered whether bringing the programs together would make them a target for cuts, but that she had decided instead that the title could become a rallying point for people who otherwise might not support the farm bill.

When the National Farmers Union met with Lucas Sept. 12, a representative of New England Farmers Union asked what he thought about a local title. Lucas said he would think about it.

Meanwhile, two key lobbyists said the staffs of Stabenow, Roberts, Lucas and House Agriculture ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., have been meeting to try to develop common positions that the agriculture committees can present to the supercommittee. One lobbyist said that staff for other members of the committees had so far been excluded.

Asked about the meetings, Roberts declined to comment. The dealings with the supercommittee, he said, are a bit “like Intel,” a reference to his previous chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Stabenow said Oct. 3 that she is ready to work with the supercommittee and her own committee on the proposals she has received.

“We’ve heard from farmers, commodity groups and even members of Congress and the reality is this: the majority of farmers are willing to move away from direct payments and toward a fiscally responsible risk-based farm safety net,” Stabenow said in an email.

“I’ve said from the very beginning that my focus is on principles and not programs,” she said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that the driving principle for America’s farmers is risk management. I’m encouraged by the thoughtful and creative proposals that have been offered by my colleagues here in the Senate and groups like the corn and cotton growers and most recently the soybean association,” she said. “We need to take a hard look at these proposals as we put together recommendations for the Joint Select Committee, and, ultimately, the 2012 farm bill.”

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