Vilsack plans to stay the course
WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the National Cotton Council Feb. 17 that he does not plan to change the farm subsidy payment limitation regulations for 2009 and that he will make no promises to change the regulations for 2010...
WASHINGTON -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the National Cotton Council Feb. 17 that he does not plan to change the farm subsidy payment limitation regulations for 2009 and that he will make no promises to change the regulations for 2010 and beyond even though the Obama administration is reviewing the rule that the Bush administration published shortly before leaving office.
Those statements led Joe Hardwick, a Newellton, La., cotton grower, who is the new chairman of the cotton council, to call on Congress to pass a bill to force Vilsack to use the 2008 regulations for 2009 and write new regulations to begin in 2010. Payment limits are an issue for all large farmers, but especially for cotton growers.
Too strict? Not too strict?
The 2008 farm bill included provisions to tighten up income limits on who can qualify for farm subsidies and who is considered "actively engaged" in farming and therefore eligible for subsidies. Commodity groups including the cotton producers and a bipartisan coalition of 23 senators have said that the Bush administration went beyond congressional intent and wrote a rule that is too strict and will disrupt businesses. Both small farm groups and some other legislators contend that subsidies to big growers have helped them expand and gobble up small farms and say the Bush rule is not strict enough.
When the Obama administration took office, the payment limits rule fell into the group of rules that White House Chief of Staff said the administration would review. Vilsack previously has said changing the rule in 2009 would be impractical because farmers are supposed to sign up for the program by June 1. Farm group leaders have privately said he should just use the 2008 regulations for 2009.
But Vilsack told the cotton industry after a speech on Feb. 17, "The 2009 rules are in effect and will stay in effect."
He added that despite the review, "I can't tell you there will be any change in 2010."
Hardship on farmers?
Hardwick said in an interview afterward that if Vilsack won't make any changes in 2009, Congress should put on a "moratorium" on the regulations for 2009. Hardwick said it would be a hardship for farmers to rewrite their business plans and reach agreements with landlords under three different sets of regulations in three years.
Vilsack also told the cotton growers they should reformulate the farm program to make climate change issues to central to justify government payments in the coming years.
"There will be challenges to that safety net" because the United States can't sustain trillion-dollar deficits, Vilsack said. A climate change-based safety net "is significantly more politically supportable to the broad population," he added.
He also said, "The fiscal condition of the country is much weaker than when the farm bill was discussed." Vilsack told reporters after the speech that he was not hinting that the Obama administration is planning to propose farm program budget cuts and that he is only trying to convince farm groups to "think creatively" about the future.
Vilsack said it would have been easier to tell the cotton growers that there would be no change in the future, but that it is part of President Obama's commitment to changing Washington for him to speak frankly to farm leaders.