U.S. Department of Agriculture deputy secretary Steve Censky told the Feb. 5 Farm Foundation Forum that now that USDA is back at full force, they're working “quickly and prudently” to implement the new farm bill.
Similar to how a FitBit offers exercise enthusiasts the ability to track and evaluate performance and set goals, he said USDA has its own “FarmBit” to act as a farm bill implementation tracker. All of the agencies are now in the process of evaluating every provision of the farm bill and establishing what steps are necessary to implement each new provision.
Mission area staff are determining if they currently hold the authority to implement provisions or if they need new authority, which would require developing a regulation or rule. It also includes detailing a timeline for developing that rule, determining if it requires notice of fund availability and whether update guidance needs to go out to the field. Another question they ask is whether USDA needs new computer software to develop those provisions or if it can just change or reprogram existing software.
All USDA agencies are in the process of filling out their FarmBit. Censky said he hopes to be sharing general timelines for implementation of various provisions in the next few weeks. He noted that some policy provisions are self-implementing, while others will require additional recommendations and insight. He's also in the process of planning listening sessions both formally and informally with various stakeholders.
Censky said the rollout of the updated dairy management program created under the new farm bill is the top priority, followed by Average Revenue Coverage and Price Loss Coverage program signups. He added that within the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Conservation Security Program and conservation easement priorities rise to the top.
Censky noted that the Foreign Agricultural Service is moving forward quickly with the Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) and hopes to make announcements “in the very near future” on new funds to help develop and maintain export markets.
Barry Flinchbaugh, Kansas State University agricultural policy economist, said implementing a new farm bill is always a gigantic undertaking for USDA. It's “no small task,” and “time is of the essence,” he noted.
Flinchbaugh said there is “nothing more important” than getting payments out to MAP and FMD cooperators.
At the forum, Tara Smith, vice president of federal affairs with Michael Torrey Associates, added that getting money flowing to these cooperators is crucial. Many are on the front lines trying to maintain or establish new markets. After 35 days without money flowing out the door due to the government shutdown and three months of the farm bill, a “lot of those cooperators are in a tough spot.”
Flinchbaugh said because of the ongoing trade war, farmers need this farm bill more so than they have needed any farm bill since the mid-1980s. The White House Office of Management & Budget estimated that payments from the farm bill will exceed $17 billion for fiscal 2019, up from $9 billion the previous year.
“Obviously, the economic impact of this safety net is significant,” Flinchbaugh said, adding that it clearly is a farmer-friendly bill.
One important contribution of the new farm bill is that farmers will no longer have to make vague, five-year decisions for the Title 1 commodity programs but instead only a two-year decision for the first two years, followed by annual decisions. Yields will also be determined primarily with Risk Management Agency data, which should bring more consistency across county lines.
Many have characterized this farm bill as more evolutionary than revolutionary. Flinchbaugh said that could continue in the long run.
“I think there’s a chance, even in today’s political environment, that we’ll continue the theme that this farm bill developed and built on the previous farm bill," he said. "This evolutionary process has established a long-run foundation on which to build future farm policy as a contract between farmers and their government.”
Flinchbaugh added that the farm bill offers a management program that provides certainty and stability and a safety net under which farm income can improve and said the nutrition funding is the “glue” that holds that framework together.