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Published May 12, 2014, 09:55 AM

Vilsack speaks on farm bill issues

Everything from the “actively engaged rule” and conservation compliance to the Brazil cotton case and the new position of agriculture undersecretary for trade came up when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee May 7 on the implementation of the 2014 farm bill.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

Everything from the “actively engaged rule” and conservation compliance to the Brazil cotton case and the new position of agriculture undersecretary for trade came up when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee May 7 on the implementation of the 2014 farm bill.

Actively engaged rule

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was disappointed the farm bill did not include stricter requirements on how U.S. Department Agriculture should define who is an “actively engaged” farmer, and pressed Vilsack for strict implementation of the provision that was included.

Grassley asked if Vilsack agreed that the provision had been used to maximize the amount of farm subsidies people could get, but the secretary would say only “people have been very creative with the law.”

Grassley also said he thinks the USDA has the authority to define “actively engaged,” but Vilsack said writing that definition “is not an easy task.”

Vilsack noted that the farm bill “really narrows” the authority of the secretary because it tells the secretary not to get involved in family farms and has a broad definition of a family farm. Grassley said he still thinks Vilsack could use his “existing authority” to limit the number of farm managers.

Crop insurance

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said wheat farmers are worried about whether the Risk Management Agency will have the data needed to develop the new Supplemental Coverage Option crop insurance program this fall, when they are expected to make a choice between the Price Loss Coverage, which allows participation in the SCO program, or the Agriculture Risk Coverage program, which does not.

Vilsack said while SCO is expected to be available this fall, it will not be before wheat farmers must choose between PLC and ARC, and said USDA will give wheat farmers an opportunity to reverse the choice if they wish.

Conservation compliance

The requirement that farmers who use subsidized crop insurance comply with federal conservation and sod-saver rules went into effect on Feb. 7, Vilsack noted, the day President Barack Obama signed the farm bill.

Most farmers already comply with the rules because they have been participating in commodity programs, but the approximately 6,000 producers for which conservation compliance is new will have until next year to develop a plan.

Vilsack also told the committee “it would not be good” for farmers to break up land because they would be out of compliance with the sod-saver provision. He later told reporters that farmers who break up native prairie will not get full crop insurance subsidies on that land.

CRP

In response to questions from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Vilsack said he expects the continuous signup for CRP to resume this spring, but that he is not certain when there will be a general sign-up.

Because the acreage in the CRP will be “constrained,” he said, there is a need to focus on wildlife habitat, pollinators and highly erodible lands.

Dairy program

Vilsack said he hopes to have the new dairy margin insurance program “up and running” in September.

He also told Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., that USDA has money to help dairy farmers learn how to make decisions about the new program.

Railroad and waterways

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted that she had inserted a study on rural transportation issues, including rail costs, in the farm bill.

Vilsack said USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber is already working on the rail transportation study. But Vilsack added it should also include waterways and locks and dams, and that he is working with the Transportation Department to put together enough funding for a comprehensive study.

Vilsack also noted that the BNSF Railway Co. has told him it intends to invest $5 billion in rail, locomotives and staff.

Trade Promotion Authority

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., said it would be difficult to complete either the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations or the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations unless the president has Trade Promotion Authority, because negotiators in other countries would not want to complete a deal they are not sure Congress will pass.

But Vilsack said that, while these agreements offer “ an enormous opportunity,” there are two ways to look at the process. One is to complete the negotiations and bring them back to Congress and get TPA. The other is to get TPA to complete TTP and T-TIP.

But he added that either way, “I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty.”

Waters of the US rule

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said farmers are worried about the impact of this Environmental Protection Agency rule on their operations.

Vilsack noted that EPA has already said normal farming practices will not be impacted, and he thinks the list of those practices will be lengthened.

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