USDA leaders talk budget cuts, school lunches, crop insurance with farm broadcasters

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 28, 2015 - Five Department of Agriculture leaders spoke with members of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting earlier today, and all gave notable remarks about programs critical to their respective agencies.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on the USDA budget cuts passed down by Congress:

·         “The concern that I now am beginning to have as Congress basically nicks our budget every year or so either through sequester or through a slight reduction -- those reductions are beginning to accumulate. It's easy for someone to say in any particular year, ‘Oh, you certainly can find in a large budget 1 percent of savings,' but when you start to accumulate those 1 percent, 2 percent, 5 percent cuts that have been administered over the last six years, it begins to have its toll on a number of people working here and our ability to process the work that needs to be done. I'm hopeful that this year, Congress will begin to recognize the cumulative effect of these reductions.”

Lets Talk Food

Vilsack on media coverage of the controversial school lunch standards:

·         “Some folks have ginned this up to make it seem like every school district in the country is having problems with this and everybody's complaining about this. Here are the facts: 93 percent of school districts have adopted the guidelines. (The) Robert Wood Johnson (Foundation) in a survey of elementary and middle school kids asked, ‘Hey, do you like these changes or not?' Seventy percent of students said they did. Then they went to the high school kids and you would expect from what you've read and heard that now so many high school kids would like the changes, but 63 percent of high school kids like them. I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that everybody in this town who is a politician would love to have either a 93 percent approval rating or a 70 percent approval rating, or even a 63 percent approval rating. But you would never know that from the coverage.”

Brandon Willis, administrator of USDA's Risk Management Agency, on the perception of the federal crop insurance program:

·         “There's a lot greater expectations of the crop insurance program today than there were five or 10 years ago. Second of all, as with programs like this, we have a lot greater scrutiny now than we did five, 10, 15 years ago. So a lot of our focus (at RMA) is trying to do things to position the program in a way that it will be a safety net for farmers in five and 10 years from now. By taking action today, it'll be put in a position that it can be successful in the future. Today, when people talk about crop insurance, the words linchpin, centerpiece, and safety net are often used, and I think five, 10, 15 years ago, we didn't describe crop insurance that way.”

·         “I think what's not printed though, is worth remembering. Think about 2012. We're a few years removed from that. What if we didn't have crop insurance? Think of the stories you didn't see about the farm families leaving rural America. That would have put a tremendous amount of small business farmers out of rural America. It would have put have put them out of business. It would have had a ripple effect across rural America. Banks, feed supply stores, equipment dealers -- you didn't see those stories. You didn't see those stories because of the crop insurance program.”

Farm Service Agency administrator Val Dolcini on the timeline for announcements of numbers for producers who chose Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage:

·         “I don't have the definitive ARC and PLC numbers, I know some of you were interested in that. We're still taking signup in some parts of the country. Those registers will hopefully be complete by the early part of May and we'll have final numbers for you. But we've really been pleased to see the success of our outreach program.”

Dolcini on the likelihood of upcoming payments under farm bill programs:

·         “I think that as the economists have predicted and some others certainly, it's likely that we will make payments under these new commodity programs. They'll operate, I think, as good safety net programs should. When prices decline, they'll be an opportunity for a payment and prices go back up, the safety net retreats. I think that this fall will be a good way for us to measure the participation levels and obviously we'll see exactly what our payment numbers look like around the nation.

Jason Weller, administrator of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, on the success of Western ranchers in avoiding the sage grouse being listed under the Endangered Species Act:

·         “What this is really about is the broader response and the proactive response ranchers in the West took to better manage their lands to better manage a species, in this case the sage grouse. This is a little sub-population, but this is the first positive indicator that by leaning in and investing proactively, you can head off the pass of a listing decision on the Endangered Species Act, which would have had pretty serious ramifications both on their lands but especially on the public lands.”

Robert Johansson, USDA acting chief economist, returned from a fact-finding trip from China last week with some interesting observations.

He said the Chinese population is so large, they have more than 170 cities with more than one million residents.

And they have 200 million farmers and 1,270 million acres of agricultural land, of which about 260 million acres is arable. That equates to an average farm size of 6.35 acres.

That's a dramatic contrast from the U.S., with 2.1 million farmers on about 380 million acres of arable land. In this country, the average farm size is 480 acres per farm.

So to add new technology and mechanization and increase farm size to an average of only 127 acres per farm, Johansson said the Chinese would need to displace 190 million farmers.

“It's a good idea for us to understand how they're planning on doing and how they're basing their farm support as well,” Johansson said. “Their policies do affect world markets. They need to be cognizant of that fact.”

#30

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