The U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to prioritize farm bill implementation and Wednesday Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack sat before the Senate Agriculture Committee to field questions and provided updates on implementation.
“In the first 90 days I’m confident we’ve made progress in every title,” Vilsack told the committee, with announcements made on trade and marketing promotion, the establishment of conservation programs, the initiation of specialty crop and local food programs, funding for rural development programs, and more.
One of the first major programs rolled out included the livestock disaster assistance programs. Vilsack testified that as of May 1, approximately 33,000 applications have been received and $16.3 million in payments has been disbursed.
Vilsack answered a number of questions about the timeline of sign-up and education efforts for new programs that are set to be out this fall including the new dairy insurance program as well as the commodity program options (Price Loss Coverage or PLC and the Average Revenue Coverage or ARC).
On April 29, USDA began a competitive process to award funding for farm bill decision aids and outreach tools. Proposals are being accepted through May 9 and Vilsack anticipates awards will be announced at the end of this month.
Vilsack said he recognized the importance of providing education and proper modeling to universities to make sure the models reflect the diversity of U.S. agriculture and also don’t skew decisions to one regional bias. He said the goal is to make sure producers have adequate time and correct information to make the important decisions that can’t be reversed from year to year.
The PLC also offers a Supplemental Coverage Option crop insurance option, which Vilsack said he believes will be available this fall. He recognized this will be challenging for wheat producers, but also said wheat producers will have additional time to reverse their decisions on SCO without a penalty if needed.
Vilsack also provided confidence that the agency would have the new dairy margin insurance program out by the Sept. 1 deadline outlined in the farm bill.
The new farm bill has also hoped to alleviate trade tensions between the U.S. and Brazil over a World Trade Organization cotton ruling that came down in favor of Brazil. Vilsack said USDA is in the “education process” of showing Brazil that the farm bill was a “good faith effort” to respond to Brazil’s concerns.
Vilsack said it is his “sincere hope and belief” that the farm bill responds to Brazil’s concerns, but also said the agency is ready to defend the changes within the WTO if Brazil chooses to challenge the new rules.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) again brought up the changes to what classifies as “actively engaged in farming.” Despite both the Senate and House versions including tighter language to limit excessive payments to individuals not directly involved in the farming operations, the final bill left the discretion to the Secretary.
However, Vilsack said the final farm bill “really, really narrows” his capacity on how he can make changes to the definition that would impact mega farms.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.) who is also a former secretary of agriculture, asked for an update on how USDA is proceeding with a study on how to institute a new undersecretary of trade and foreign development at USDA, which was approved to in the farm bill. A study was due at the beginning of August, but Vilsack said that timeline may be difficult to meet.
Johanns said so much of what he did while the head of USDA was trade related. “I would have given anything to have this in place,” he said.
Vilsack agreed of the importance of the post, and with the anticipated departure of Darci Vetter to be the chief agricultural negotiator at USTR, it’s timely. However, Vilsack said there are many different divisions of USDA that touch trade, and so the restructuring needs to be done in a way that’s right.