CONGRESS passed the farm bill earlier this year, but now, the challenge at the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to decipher the legislation and determine which parts will require new rules or guidance and then move forward on that, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Speaking to attendees at Commodity Classic, Vilsack said for the last couple of weeks, USDA has been prioritizing what it must do in regards to farm bill implementation.
He said the mission area will determine what needs to be done, and USDA then must figure out how it needs to be done — either by crafting a rule or guidance. Then, it has to be reviewed by the General Counsel's Office and the Office of Budget & Policy. Also, any rule has to go to the Office of Management & Budget for final review.
Vilsack said some of this initial groundwork should help avoid "creating a kind of funnel effect at USDA where the same person in the General Counsel's Office has to review multiple steps in the process at the same time."
He added, "We hope to be able to have it organized in a timely way to move it through the process."
One of the first marching orders will be livestock disaster assistance signups by April 15. "We will work very hard shortly thereafter to make sure the resources are paid. We want to make sure that we keep as many operators in business as possible," Vilsack said.
The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Management Assistance Programs also were renewed under the farm bill, and the agency is already taking applications for signups.
Vilsack said he anticipates that by around May 17, USDA will notify applicants whether they have been accepted, and those obligations will begin June 1.
Conservation Security Program applications are also being accepted, and USDA expects to send notifications around June 1, with obligations beginning sometime in late July or early August.
The new bill extends the Milk Income Loss Contract until Sept. 1, which leaves some unanswered questions regarding the implementation timeline of the new dairy program.
Alan Kozak, vice chairman and founding member of the grassroots group Dairy Policy Action Coalition, said the framework is there, but the details are not.
One of the most pivotal unknowns is when a producer would have to sign up relative to the coverage period, he explained.
"If the coverage period starts Sept. 1, you could see signups by June 1. The closer the signup date is to coverage start, the more risk there is to gain the system," Kozak said.
In the final agreement, Congress punted the decision on how to define "actively engaged in farming" to USDA. Vilsack said the agency will determine that in the form of a proposed rule, which will "hopefully be done sometime by the end of the calendar year."
One of the big decisions facing crop farmers will be whether or not to participate in the Agriculture Risk Coverage or Price Loss Coverage program. Vilsack said he hopes to finalize final program details by this fall.
The bill allows producers to update production history and base acres. The hope is that by the end of 2014 or early 2015, producers will be in a position to make their elections and decisions.
Vilsack said USDA needs to establish the educational and training materials that will be used to educate farmers and its field staff.
"We will soon be dispersing the $3 million that Congress has provided for the tab of those training materials and the web-based tools that you all will use and study over the course of the next several months to make determinations and decisions about your operation. We will establish the opportunities that will assist us in our outreach, which we can expect to do in the summer and fall of this year," he said.
While discussing the farm bill at Speaker of the House John Boehner's (R., Ohio) Farm Forum on March 1, Purdue University economist Otto Doering said for traditional commodity producers, this is a "rich bill."
"This is the greatest support that farmers under commodity programs have ever received," Doering said. "You are protected to a degree that dry cleaners are not."
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R., Ohio) added, "The potential hit to taxpayers could be tremendous if we see record crops and low prices. If we have two years in a row of that, government payouts would be large."