Vilsack: Farm bill needs safety net
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will leave the writing of the 2012 farm bill largely up to the congressional Agriculture committees, but thinks it should contain a safety net for farmers as well as provisions to help create better off-farm...
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration will leave the writing of the 2012 farm bill largely up to the congressional Agriculture committees, but thinks it should contain a safety net for farmers as well as provisions to help create better off-farm jobs in rural America, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the House Agriculture Committee April 21.
At the committee's first hearing on the 2012 farm bill, Vilsack said USDA "would provide an outline or framework on the farm bill, but there is no intention to provide you with a complete farm bill." Previous administrations have varied in the scope of farm bill proposals they have made to Congress, and the Agriculture committees often have ignored or pushed back against administration proposals.
"The breadth and depth of the farm bill is incredible," Vilsack said in written testimony , noting that it provides USDA not only the authority to help farmers, but "to fund rural hospitals, schools and fire stations, maintain a safe food supply and sustain export markets for commodities."
Vilsack diverted from his written testimony on the implementation of the 2008 farm bill to provide orally what amounted to administration philosophy on the farm bill and its role in rural America.
The need is there
Farm income levels "suggest the need for continuation of the safety net," Presenting a slide show of charts that he said indicated the need for creation of better off farm jobs in rural America. Vilsack said he hopes to create conditions under which farm parents and grandparents will encourage young people to stay in rural America rather than leave as they so often do. To accomplish those goals, Vilsack asked for more flexibility in rural business development programs because those economies today are regional.
One of Vilsack's charts showed that only 9 percent of farmers' incomes are from farming, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., disputed that, saying it was based on a definition of a farmer being anyone who could produce farm goods valued at $1,000. Peterson said he wants USDA to furnish him information on the incomes of the 300,000 farmers who produce 80 percent of the food.
Vilsack acknowledged that 54 percent of the 2.2 million people in that survey do not claim farming as their principal occupation, but he added that farm conditions for the 300,000 biggest producers "clearly indicate they need a safety net." Even though the 300,000 are "the greatest farmers in the world" they do not make as much money as equivalent lawyers or doctors, Vilsack said.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., told Vilsack he did not talk enough about the farm safety net and that he fears the administration thinks increasing high-speed Internet service and other nonfarm programs are "the primary issues."
Lucas asked Vilsack if the administration's proposals in the fiscal year 2011 budget to cut direct payments, crop insurance and conservation programs would be an indication of its farm bill proposals.
Vilsack replied that there may be opportunities to use those resources in an efficient way," but he also pledged to handle the negotiations with crop insurance companies over their subsidy levels in a way to protect the baseline for the farm bill.
Lucas said he was afraid the Obama administration will turn rural America into "a bedroom community where people drive to work every day and drive back," but Vilsack said that is not his goal and that jobs in biorefineries and firms using broadband service would help people stay in rural America.