Schafer: Direct payment program a go
WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said June 25 that USDA is implementing the direct payment program immediately, but it will not implement the Average Crop Revenue Election program before winter wheat planting season and won't finish...
WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said June 25 that USDA is implementing the direct payment program immediately, but it will not implement the Average Crop Revenue Election program before winter wheat planting season and won't finish rules for the new permanent disaster aid program before the Bush administration leaves office.
Schafer and his deputies also said the Agriculture Department needs at least twice -- and possibly four times -- the $50 million Congress provided to implement the new farm bill.
Schafer announced that that the Farm Service Agency is ready for farmers to sign up for the direct and countercyclical payments programs and that farmers who sign up will receive advance direct payments amounting to 22 percent of the payment "as soon as practical after enrollment." The final direct payments will be made after Oct. 1. Farmers have until Aug. 15 to sign up for the program without paying a penalty.
But USDA officials also said FSA, which makes farm program payments, needs more money and new computer programs to implement the new Average Crop Revenue Program and will not have it ready before planting of the winter wheat crop.
"Our advisers tell us the data that is necessary to implement ACRE simply cannot be put upon on the computer system that is housed within the FSA system," Deputy Ag Secretary Chuck Conner said.
"We're looking there for double the amount that Congress allocated," Schafer said.
But Deputy Agriculture Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Floyd Gaibler said that to include modernization of the FSA computer system, the total amount needed might be closer to four times Congress' allocation.
A spokeswoman for Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin, who wrote the ACRE provision, said, "USDA's antiquated computer system is not a problem that developed overnight. The agency has been aware of this for some time, but had not requested sufficient funding through the annual appropriations process even though a new farm bill was being crafted on Capitol Hill. Still, this problem should not interfere with ACRE being available in the 2009 crop year, so we urge USDA to seek an emergency appropriations request if necessary."
Advance payments or not?
Schafer also he doesn't expect to finish the rules for the new permanent disaster program before the Bush administration leaves office and said it is questionable whether any advance disaster payments can be made. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., co-author of the disaster program with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said, "The farm bill, as passed by Congress, was written so that USDA could respond to help farmers recover from natural disasters, including the Midwest flooding. It would be unacceptable for the administration to fail to write the necessary regulations to permit needed assistance for those suffering from disasters. They should come to Congress for any emergency funding they require to implement the law written and passed by Congress over the president's veto."
Schafer said lawyers have disagreed about whether USDA has the authority to make advance disaster payments. He added that it is difficult to estimate what the payments should be because the disaster program is based on farm revenues and prices.
"A year from this harvest season is when we can evaluate what a disaster payment might be," Schafer said. "If we can't estimate what a payment might be, it is pretty hard to give you an advance or a portion of that."
Schafer added, however, that he has decided to speed up the schedule for evaluating whether farmers should be allowed to take idled land out of the Conservation Reserve Program for the 2009 crop year without paying a penalty. Schafer said he expects to make an announcement on that in the next two weeks.
Schafer confirmed previous statements that the country-of-origin labeling program will go into effect Oct. 1. He said there would be a grace period of up to six months, but that retailers should start as soon as possible after Oct. 1 to follow the law. Schafer also said USDA is working on a system to verify to South Korea that meat going to that country comes from cattle 30 months and younger.