THE U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to make the 2014 farm bill a priority, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sat before the Senate Agriculture Committee last Wednesday to field questions and provide updates on its implementation.
"In the first 90 days, I'm confident that we've made progress in every title" of the farm bill, 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.
Some of the first major programs rolled out included the livestock disaster assistance programs. Vilsack testified that as of May 1, approximately 33,000 applications had been received and $16.3 million in payments had been disbursed.
Vilsack answered a number of questions about the timeline for signups and educational efforts for new programs that are set to roll out this fall, including the new dairy insurance program and the commodity program options: Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Average Revenue Coverage.
PLC also offers a supplemental coverage option, which Vilsack said he believes will be available this fall. He acknowledged that this will be challenging for wheat producers but also said wheat producers will have additional time, if needed, to reverse their decisions on supplemental coverage without a penalty.
Vilsack expressed confidence that USDA will have the new dairy margin insurance program out by the Sept. 1 deadline outlined in the farm bill.
USDA began a competitive process to award funding for farm bill decision-making aids and outreach tools, with proposals accepted through May 9. Vilsack anticipates making awards for website development and other decision aids on May 22, with the final tools expected to be in place by late summer.
Following the hearing, major national agricultural commodity groups sent a letter urging Vilsack to choose a lead institution "possessing substantial experience with revenue-based risk management tools and representing a broad-based national consortium of land-grant universities."
The groups said the tools need to come from institutions that have strong familiarity with the cropping practices and farm economics of the Midwest and northern Great Plains — areas where the majority of acres are subject to program decisions.
During the hearing, Vilsack did not confirm whether a lead institution would be chosen.
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 any important decisions that can't be reversed from year to year.
There is hope that the new farm bill will 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 changes made in the farm bill were 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 added that USDA is ready to defend the changes at WTO if Brazil chooses to challenge the new rules.
During the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) brought up changes to the definition of "actively engaged in farming." Even though both the Senate and House versions of the farm bill included tighter language to limit excessive payments to individuals who are not directly involved in farming operations, the final bill left it up to the agriculture secretary's discretion.
However, Vilsack said the final farm bill "really, really narrows" his capacity for making changes to the definition that would affect "mega" farms.
Sen. Mike Johanns (R., Neb.), a former agriculture secretary, asked for a progress update on a USDA study of how to instate a new undersecretary of trade and foreign development at USDA, which was approved in the farm bill. The study is due at the beginning of August, but Vilsack said that timeline may be difficult to meet.
Johanns said so much of what he did when he led USDA was trade related, and "I would have given anything to have this in place."