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Published April 02, 2012, 09:53 AM

Vilsack defends USDA cuts

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on March 30 defended the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to close some Farm Service Agency county offices if they were within 20 miles of each other “as the crow flies,” and also the agency’s cuts to certain research programs.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on March 30 defended the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to close some Farm Service Agency county offices if they were within 20 miles of each other “as the crow flies,” and also the agency’s cuts to certain research programs.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., noted that one office in Arkansas is only 18.6 miles from another office as the crow flies, but it’s 21.8 miles by road, and asked Vilsack if the agency had used the as the crow flies system to close more offices.

Vilsack replied that he and his staff had made sure “we were operating within the direction of Congress” in the 2008 farm bill on how to conduct office closures. The alternative, Vilsack said, was to create chaos in 2,000 offices through furloughs and layoffs.

Pressed repeatedly by Pryor on the office closures and the closure of research institutions on college campuses, Vilsack said, “Senator, these are tough decisions. You could find a reason to keep every one of them open but we don’t have the resources or the people.

“We need at USDA to figure out how we can generate a lot of private-sector activity in these communities so there are jobs and better incomes,” he added. “They rely on publicly supported institutions. We need to do a better job of encouraging private enterprise.”

Pryor also asked if the closing of the Dale Bumpers Small Farms Institute and other facilities means that USDA is “getting out of the research business.”

“We have over 100 facilities and have asked for more money (for a competitive research grants program),” Vilsack said. “It doesn’t mean we have to have more facilities. It is unfair to suggest that we are going to get out of the research business. It is fair to point out that Congress has provided less money. . . . I am not going to whine about it. . . I am going to manage it.”

Pryor also asked the secretary if he could not find money from some other program to cut to avoid cuts to research institutions

If he did that, Vilsack said, “You would be asking us why we were transferring money from another program that you like.”

In other interactions with senators, Vilsack:

• Told Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., that the crop insurance program could be maintained with the cuts that President Barack Obama’s budget has proposed, and declined Hoeven’s request that USDA support the addition of potatoes to the WIC program food package. Vilsack said that WIC should encourage mothers and children to eat dark green and orange vegetables they are not already eating, and that studies show the mothers and children are already eating potatoes.

• Told Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee chairman Herb Kohl, D-Wis., that he thinks the agency budget request for the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC is adequate for this year, even though last year’s request proved to be too low and the agency had to transfer funds to avoid turning away people from the program. USDA has asked for $7.04 billion to serve 9.1 million participants.

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