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Published August 11, 2014, 09:25 AM

Vilsack proud of farm bill implementation

WASHINGTON — As the six-month anniversary of the farm bill approached, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Aug. 6 that he is proud of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s record on implementation, but noted that farmers will not be able to update their actual production history records until the 2016 crop year.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Agweek

WASHINGTON — As the six-month anniversary of the farm bill approached, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Aug. 6 that he is proud of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s record on implementation, but noted that farmers will not be able to update their actual production history records until the 2016 crop year.

President Barack Obama signed the farm bill on Feb. 7 at Michigan State University in Lansing.

In a telephone news conference, Vilsack said he was particularly pleased that USDA has been able to process more than 165,000 applications for disaster assistance. USDA has already paid out more than $1.8 billion, he said, adding he expects the total disaster payments to exceed $2 billion.

He also noted USDA has made progress in implementing new crop insurance measures, including the whole farm policy and the supplemental coverage option and the new Stacked Income Protection Program for cotton.

The Obama administration has done a better job of implementing the farm bill than other recent administrations, according to Mary Kay Thatcher, the Farm Bureau director of public policy.

“This administration has done a better job of implementing the farm bill than any other in seven farm bills,” she told the American Sugar Alliance during a panel discussion.

Thatcher said after previous farm bills passed, many other administrations have refused to listen to farm groups, saying such contacts were forbidden under the Administrative Procedures Act.

But Thatcher said Obama administration officials “listen and make changes” when farm leaders raise questions about the plans on implementation.

Vilsack said he would not be able to satisfy the request of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., that USDA make it possible for some farmers to update their actual production history, or APH, to exclude years in which their yields are more than 50 percent below the 10-year average for their county. That change would change their benefits.

Lucas has suggested USDA could at least allow farmers in some drought-plagued counties to update their histories.

But Vilsack said Aug. 6 the work on the APH would have to be done by the same USDA officials in the Farm Service Agency and the general counsel’s office who are focused on broader farm bill implementation issues.

“We had a choice to make in terms of allocating assets,” he said. “We are trying to get work done that was mandated by Congress.” He felt it was important to move on STAX, SCO and the commodity programs known as Price Loss Coverage and Agricultural Risk Coverage.

In addition, Vilsack added, updating APH is “complex” because it involves computations for each farmer based on each commodity and county statistics.

“It is very IT intense and labor and staff intense,” he said. “I don’t know how feasible it is for an individual crop or counties to be designated. What if you have a multitude of producers in one county, only a few in another county. Those are decisions that have to be made if you want to single out commodities.”

He said, “I appreciate the concern of the chairman. Obviously he is concerned about his producers,” but he added that if USDA focused on APH and did not get the work done on the programs, Lucas “would be equally concerned about all producers.”

The new dairy margin insurance program, Vilsack said, will be in place by the time producers need it. Although House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., has said he worries USDA is not doing enough to inform dairy producers about that program, Vilsack said dairy producers will have plenty of time to enroll before it goes into effect.

Vilsack also cited the administration’s release of the regional conservation partnership program, which has received 586 initial proposals, the establishment of the research foundation in the bill, and the launch of specialty crop block grants and organic research programs.

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