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Published January 16, 2012, 11:30 AM

Vilsack addresses Farm Bureau

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman don’t agree on all the issues facing agriculture, but in speeches at the Farm Bureau convention last week, the two made the same points on farm bill spending and its schedule for consideration.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

HONOLULU — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman don’t agree on all the issues facing agriculture, but in speeches at the Farm Bureau convention last week, the two made the same points on farm bill spending and its schedule for consideration.

Both said they see pressure to cut the farm bill by more than $23 billion over the next 10 years, a figure which House and Senate agriculture committee leaders agreed to last year. They also said Congress should write a new farm bill in 2012, but that it will be difficult to achieve that goal.

Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa, told the Iowa Farm Bureau on Jan. 8 that it is important to support the military spending cuts included in the law passed last year, which allowed an increase in the debt ceiling but also established automatic defense and domestic spending cuts totaling $1.5 trillion over 10 years, which are to go into effect in 2013.

The military portion of that cut is $487 billion, but some Republicans and a few Democrats have said that it is too big a cut to the military.

Vilsack warned that if Congress changes that figure, it “will affect everything else.” Under those circumstances, he added, the cut in agriculture spending could rise to the $33 billion the Obama administration had proposed at one point or the $48 billion ag spending cut that the House had made in the budget it passed.

Timetable unclear

The secretary also said he could not predict whether the farm bill would be passed this year.

“It’s hard to imagine this Congress reaching consensus” on the farm bill, Vilsack said, although he noted that the Agriculture Department will do all it can to help them.

Stallman was asked at a news conference, also on Jan. 8, about what he expects the cut to agriculture would be.

“I sense it will be higher than $23 billion,” he said.

Farm Bureau members have disagreed over whether to support ending the direct payments program, which other groups have endorsed, but Stallman said “everything is on the table” as the Farm Bureau begins its policy debate.

Stallman said the atmosphere surrounding the farm bill debate is affected by the fact that agriculture has been an economic bright spot while problems in the larger economy have led many people to need assistance through the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP, previously known as food stamps.

Although the Farm Bureau said initially that the farm program should not take a disproportionate cut, Stallman said the organization recognizes that food stamps will not be cut by a similar percentage, and is only looking for ways to make that program more efficient. Stallman noted that while some people think farmers need no assistance, farmers do need protection in bad times.

Stallman declined to state a position on whether there should be a cut in armed forces spending, but noted that the Farm Bureau has traditionally favored a strong military.

The farm bill should be passed in 2012 to avoid uncertainty in the 2013 crop year, Stallman said, but added he believes it will be hard to achieve that goal.

Farm Bureau lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher said in a separate session that she agreed that the likelihood of passing the farm bill in 2012 is less than 50-50.

But Thatcher added that there is no upside to waiting until 2013 because the federal budget pressures in 2013 are likely to be even greater than in 2012. “There is every reason to push it through if we can.”

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