Senate Ag Committee looks for 21st Century Farm Bill solutions

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.


WASHINGTON, May 26, 2011- Citing the need to focus on “principles, not programs,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich, kicked off the first official 2012 farm bill hearing today. An “all-star” cast, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and former Secretary Dan Glickman testified during the event, which focused on “The Role, Risks and Challenges for American Agriculture and the next Farm Bill in meeting the demands of a Growing World.”


Much of the hearing focused on highlighting the important role that farmers and the agriculture industry, in general, have played in sustainably feeding Americans, but also a growing, hungry world. But panelists also addressed a number of short and long-term challenges ahead including increased volatility, the need to increase productivity and farm program flexibility, and the need to make investments despite the nation's debt crisis.

“Despite all of the economic and budget struggles over the last decade, agriculture has remained a bright spot: agriculture has continued to grow, farmers have innovated and become even more productive, and they have become even better stewards of our land and water resources,” noted Sen. Stabenow. “And we are not only feeding the world because of that innovation, but we're showing farmers in every corner of the world new strategies to be more productive themselves.”


Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed out that agriculture is responsible for one out of every 12 jobs in America and highlighted export records.

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“While many sectors of our economy are running trade deficits, American agriculture has enjoyed a trade surplus for nearly 50 years. This year we expect a record surplus and record agricultural exports should help support more than 1 million jobs across the nation,” noted Vilsack.


Asked to name the top 2-3 lessons he's learned since becoming Secretary, Vilsack noted the importance of continued investments in research, a responsibility to conserve natural resources, and need for the rest of the world to continue to embrace technology.


However, he noted that continuing to make investments in agriculture will be difficult because of the “fiscal and political realities about the size of the debt, the deficit, and the tight budget environment.”


“I have no doubts that the next Farm Bill will be smaller than the one agreed to in 2008,” said Vilsack. “In acknowledging that reality, I hope that this Committee will give serious thought to your priorities for American agriculture - your priorities for USDA - and to the values of the American people.


“USDA is prepared to do as much as we can with fewer resources, but there is no doubt that cuts will have real impacts for American agriculture and the American people. There will be pain and everyone will have to sacrifice something. There are no easy cuts,” he emphasized.


With fewer dollars, Vilsack said he has already asked his senior managers to think creatively about how USDA might operate differently.


But Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D, cautioned against cutting too deeply into programs for U.S. farmers, especially when “the playing field is tilted against them.” He said the the European Union is “outdoing us in support three to one.”


Photo: Courtesy of Senate Agriculture Committee Staff

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb, who served as the ranking minority member during the hearing, focused on the long-term needs for a 21st Century agriculture, suggesting that risk management, especially crop insurance, should be the “bedrock of the farm safety net.”


Vilsack did not commit to any one program, but said crop insurance, disaster assistance and strong markets should all play a role in supporting farmers.  


Former Agriculture Dan Glickman, testifying on behalf of the Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative Glickman shared the importance of improving productivity and developing agriculture around the globe.


“We are going to need to double food production in the world over next 30 years,” Glickman added. “That's the equivalent of two Chinas.”


Doug DeVries, Senior Vice President with Deere and Company, agreed that the “challenges before global agriculture are not well understood” and emphasized that the rate of agricultural productivity growth must increase substantially.


Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University, said recent food price spikes have called attention to the need to develop agriculture around the globe, but more focus on risk management throughout the supply chain is needed. He said there is an  

“urgent need” for investment in roads, irrigation, and agricultural research to facilitate agriculture and rural development in less developed countries.


Compared to previous farm bills, Glickman said that “After almost 50 years of high supplies, we are in for a long-term period of equilibrium of supply and demand.


“Farm policy has traditionally been based on low prices and high supply,” he added and this new environment will have “great ramifications on how the U.S. helps the world lead.”


Michigan farmer Barry Mumby highlighted short-term supply concerns when he described how wet weather and floods were keeping many farmers out of the fields. He predicted that corn yields are going to fall substantially short of USDA's production estimates.


“In September, it's going to be very difficult for anyone to buy a bushel of corn,” Mumby testified.  He added that there are currently some Conservation Reserve Program acres that could be farmed with no-till technology, but American farmers won't solve crop shortages alone.”


Secretary Vilsack offered few specifics about what the 2012 Farm Bill should include, but suggested it was time to consider one of the Obama Administration's campaign themes to tighten farm program payment eligibility limits.


Vilsack has the regulatory authority to advance a proposed rule that would substantially tighten payment limits, but declined to do so while Sen. Blanche Lincoln chaired the committee. He gave no indication as to whether he was willing to do so now.


“At a time when we are really challenged (fiscally) it may make some sense for this body to look at the process,” for limiting farm program payments, he said.


In response to questions from Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., Sec. Vilsack said a 21st century USDA may need “fewer programs and more flexibility” because one program often doesn't work in all circumstances. Hoeven asked for Vilsack's continued help on solving flooding in Devil's Lake and other areas in his home state.


Sen. Thune, R-S.D., asked Secretary Vilsack whether or not existing programs to help beginning farmers are working or whether more is needed.


Vilsack said we “need to find ways to provide sweat equity for young people to get into farming,” but offered no specifics.


Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., questioned Secretary Vilsack on why, with the need to increase productivity, it was taking USDA so long to approve new biotechnology products.


Vilsack said there are a greater number of new products and the products are far more complex than we first started.  He said the agency is engaged in “process improvement,” trying to eliminate steps and also expanding the number of people involved.


“We have also suggested using the same process that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other regulatory bodies follow, providing an independent contractor, so we at USDA will review the review. This might speedup the process,” Vilsack explained.


Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn, and several other senators asked Vilsack about ethanol. He supported the need to have a “glide path” for phasing out ethanol subsidies, as well as the need to make additional investments in ethanol related infrastructure.


“We hope you don't provide a cliff,” Vilsack said, citing the devastating blow delivered to the biodiesel industry when subsidies totally stopped last year. “If there is to be an end, there needs to be a glide path and perhaps a redirection to help bolster the industry.


At a time when high gas prices are already hurting consumers, the situation would be worse without ethanol, Vilsack said.


“Americans are paying 89 cents a gallon less because we have the ethanol industry,” he added.



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