Sec. Vilsack outlines more progress on farm bill implementation
By Sara Wyant
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
WASHINGTON, May 7, 2014 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry today that his team has made new progress on implementing every title of the new 2014 farm bill and responded to dozens of questions from committee members on their implementation concerns.
For the most part, the two-hour hearing was a cordial give and take, with members thanking the Secretary for quick response on implementing the Livestock Disaster program, which started April 15.
USDA noted that, after the 2008 Farm Bill passed, it took over one year to set up disaster assistance programs. In 2014, it took under 10 weeks to reboot many of the same disaster programs that had been allowed to expire, along with modifications approved in the Agricultural Act of 2014. As of May 1, 2014, approximately 33,000 applications have been received and $16.3 million in payments has been disbursed.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., highlighted several reforms that were included in the Agricultural Act of 2014, including the new Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) “which will combine public and private dollars to make sure we have the funding streams necessary to continue to solve problems and create opportunities through research and new innovation.” The farm bill provides $200 million that can be matched with private sector funding.
Vilsack noted that the nomination period for the 15-member board ended on April 28, 2014 and USDA received over 275 nominations. He told the committee that he expects to move quickly to name board members, with the first board meeting expected in July.
Sen. John Thune, R-SD, noted that the farm bill allocated significant funding for education and decision-making tools. He encouraged Vilsack to make sure that a Midwestern university would be involved to help explain the program, echoing concerns expressed by several major commodity organizations.
Vilsack assured Thune that the Department is trying to avoid any regional biases in the information going out to farmers.
“We certainly don't want it all going to one institution,” Vilsack added, while joking that it would probably be good to include Michigan State University, the Chairwoman's alma mater.
In his written testimony, Vilsack noted that USDA will announce the funding allocations for state-based extension services to educate producers on May 22.
USDA is now accepting applications from Land Grant Universities, 1890 Colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges to create web-based tools that will help provide producers with information on the Agricultural Risk Coverage Program and Price Loss Coverage Program, as well as the larger protection program for dairy and the non-insured crop disaster assistance program.
In one of the livelier exchanges, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, pressed Vilsack on how he plans to use the discretion given to him in the farm bill to tighten the definition of “actively engaged,” for the purpose of determining farm program eligibility. Grassley displayed a poster showing how one entity, with 16 non-farming “managers,” used the farm program and received more than $650,000 in farm payments in 2012 alone.
“The loophole puts small- and medium-sized farms and young and beginning farmers at a disadvantage,” Grassley said. “Despite being fixed in both the House and Senate bills, the provisions were taken out of the bill by a few members in conference."Vilsack said the new farm bill “really, really narrows” his ability to make changes. But Grassley tried to make the point that the secretary still has existing authority under previous farm legislation to tighten the definition and would not have to rely exclusively on the new provisions.
Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., asked Vilsack about how much progress he is making on a study to determine how to reorganize USDA with a new under secretary of trade and foreign development. It is a position required by an amendment that the former secretary of agriculture offered to the farm bill. Johanns said the study is due August 6.
“This is a lot more complex than I recognized,” Vilsack admitted. While describing a series of USDA meetings on this topic and all of the various agencies involved in trade-related decisions, Vilsack that there are “obviously equities and passions in this decision” and said he was unsure whether or not he would be able to make the August deadline. “We will do our best,” he added.
Chairwoman Stabenow questioned the secretary about the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), noting that it was probably “one of the most understated policies” in the new farm bill.
“It has the potential to really transform the face and future of agricultural stewardship,” Stabenow said.
Vilsack said the department has already started a series of listening session and would like to launch the program in time for an upcoming White House Rural Council meeting which will highlight the importance of bringing investment capital to Rural America.
Stabenow also asked about new provisions that require any producer purchasing crop insurance to comply with conservation requirements.
Vilsack noted that the provisions were effective with the farm bill signing on Feb. 7 and that USDA expects most producers to already be in compliance. However, there are perhaps another 6,000 who may be impacted and they will have until mid-2015 to comply.
“If they fail to do that, then they will still be able to buy crop insurance but not with govt. subsidy.”
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., asked about the how Brazilian officials are reacting to all of the changes made in the U.S. cotton program, in part to address Brazil's successful challenge of the previous program in the World Trade Organization.
“We are in the education process to make sure they understand that Congress made a good faith effort. Those discussions are ongoing and we hope they get done soon,” Vilsack explained.
Chambliss asked whether or not the department was in a “good place” to react and defend the new cotton program.
“We are and we will,” Vilsack countered.
In addition to Vilsack's testimony, USDA issued a report on their progress to date on all of the farm bill titles. See below:
TITLE I - Commodity Programs
- Agricultural Risk Coverage Program and Price Loss Coverage Program: On April 29, 2014 USDA began a competitive process to award funding for farm bill decision aids and outreach tools. Proposals are being accepted through May 9, 2014 and awards will be announced in May 2014.
- Supplemental Agriculture Disaster Assistance: On April 14, 2014 USDA published a final rule to implement the disaster assistance provisions. Sign up for these programs began on April 15, 2014.
- Dairy Forward Pricing Program: Final rule published on March 21, 2014, that re-established the Dairy Forward Pricing Program.
- County and Regional Loan Rates: County and regional loan rates were announced in a press release on March 28, 2014.
- Extension of Programs: On March 28, 2014 FSA published on the Federal Register notices for the extension of the following programs: (1) Marketing Assistance Loans; (2) Milk Income Loss Contract; (3) Dairy Indemnity Payment Program; (4) Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program; and (5) Sugar.
TITLE II - Conservation
- Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program: On May 1, 2014 USDA announced the availability of $20 million through this program. Applications will be accepted through June 16, 2014.
- Agricultural Conservation Easements Program: On May 1, 2014 USDA announced the availability of funds through this program. Applications will be accepted through June 6, 2014.
- Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Report: This report will be submitted to Congress the week of May 5, 2014.
- Conservation Programs: Applications are currently being accepted for the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
TITLE III - Trade
- U.S. Atlantic Spiny Dogfish Study: The week of May 5, 2014, USDA will submit a report to Congress on the existing market in the U.S. for the U.S. Atlantic Spiny Dogfish.
- Emerging Markets Program (EMP): On April 17, 2014, FAS published a Notice of Funding Availability for EMP, with $10 million available in 2014. EMP applications are reviewed on a rolling basis during the fiscal year. Applications received after May 19, 2014, will be considered for funding if funding remains available.
- Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC): On April 17, 2014, FAS published a Notice of Funding Availability for TASC, with $9 million available. Applications received after May 28, 2014, will be considered if funding remains available. The week of May 5, 2014, FAS will publish a final rule to broaden the range of projects funded by the program.
- Market Access Program (MAP): On April 16, 2014 the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) announced the 2014 funding for the Market Access Program. Sixty-two non-profit organizations received $171.8 million in funding.
- Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program (FMD): On April 16, 2014 the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) announced the 2014 funding for FMD, with 22 trade organizations receiving $24.6 million.
TITLE IV - Nutrition Programs
- Multiagency Taskforce on Commodity Programs: On April 24, the Under Secretary for FNCS signed a memorandum appointing members to the multi-agency taskforce to provide coordination and direction for commodity programs.
- Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Pilot: On April 7, 2014 FNS announced an RFP for this pilot program, which will take place during the 2014-2015 school year.
- SNAP-related Provisions: On March 21, 2014, FNS released an Implementation Memorandum to States communicating major SNAP related provisions of the Act.
- Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP): On March 10, 2014, FNS released an Implementation Memorandum to States on phasing out the eligibility of women, infants and children.
- Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Payments: On March 5, 2014, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) released an Implementation Memorandum to States on the elimination of standard utility allowances in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for LIHEAP payments less than $20.
- Community Food Projects: On February 27, 2014, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program, with $5 million available.
TITLE V - Credit
- Microloans: On March 26, 2014, FSA issued an agency directive implementing non-discretionary microloan provisions.
- Modifications to Farm Loan Programs: On March 24, 2014, FSA issued a news release announcing changes to Farm Loan Programs as part of the Farm Bill.
- Farm Loan Programs/Direct Farm Ownership: On February 7, 2014, FSA implemented changes in the interest rate on Direct Farm Ownership loans that are made in conjunction with other lenders.
TITLE VI - Rural Development
- Business and Industry Loan Guarantee: The week of May 5, 2014, Rural Development will announce the availability of funding through this program to provide support for local or regional food producers.
- Definition of Rural Housing: On March 13, 2014, Rural Development issued guidance to State Directors, field staff and stakeholders on implementing new eligibility requirements regarding the definition of rural housing. The week of May 5, 2014, Rural Development will publish maps identifying which rural areas are eligible for housing programs.
- Rural Cooperative Development Grants: On April 29, 2014 USDA announced the availability of $5.8 million through this program.
- Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program: On April 22, 2014 USDA announced 116 project awards through this program. The total award of nearly $387 million included $150 million in grants supported by the Farm Bill.
- Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG): On March 25, 2014, Rural Development published a notice in the Federal Register extending the application period for Fiscal Year 2013 and 2014 funding for VAPG, with up to $25.5 million available for these grants.
TITLE VII - Research and Related Matters
- Agricultural and Food Policy Research Centers: On April 15, 2014 awards for these four research centers, totaling about $4 million, were announced.
- Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR): Letters soliciting nominations to the FFAR Board were mailed to interested parties and a Federal Register notice was published on April 4, 2014. Nominations are currently being reviewed.
- Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative: On March 17, 2014, NIFA released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, with $20 million available in FY 2014.
- Specialty Crop Research Initiative: On March 17, 2014, NIFA released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with $76.8 million available in FY 2014.
- Citrus Disease Subcommittee: A subcommittee has been formally established within the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board, under the Specialty Crop Committee, and solicitation letters for nominations were issued March 17, 2014.
- Budget Submission and Funding: On March 10, 2014, REE submitted its first Budget Submission and Funding report to Congress.
TITLE VIII - Forestry
- Insect and Disease Infestation: On March 19, 2014, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell sent a letter to all state governors notifying them of the opportunity to submit requests for designating their priority insect and disease areas for treatment.
TITLE IX - Energy
- Rural Energy for America Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will publish a Notice of Funding Availability announcing the availability of approximately $70 million in funding for loan guarantees and grants.
- Biodiesel Fuel Education Program: The week of May 5, 2014, REE will announce the availability of $960,000 for grants to educate consumers about the benefits of biodiesel fuel use.
TITLE X - Horticulture
- Farmers Market Promotion Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will announce the availability of $15 million through this program.
- Local Foods Promotion Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will announce the availability of $15 million through this program.
- Specialty Crop Block Grants: On April 17, 2014 USDA announced the availability of approximately $66 million through this program.
- Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention: On April 3, 2014, USDA announced $48.1 million in funding for 383 projects to help prevent the introduction or spread of plan pests and diseases. Applications are being accepted through May 23, 2014.
- National Clean Plant Network: On March 24, 2014, The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced a Request for Applications (RFA) for the National Clean Plant Network, with $5 million available.
- Christmas Tree Research and Promotion Order: On April 7, 2014, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) published a notice lifting stay on the Christmas Tree Research and Promotion.
- Bulk Shipments of Apples to Canada: On April 4, 2014, AMS published a final rule in the Federal Register amending regulations under the Export Apple Act to allow bulk containers to be shipped to Canada without U.S. inspection.
TITLE XI - Crop Insurance
- Permanent Enterprise Unit Subsidy: On May 1, 2014 RMA completed the update to its systems to reflect the permanent enterprise unit subsidy as mandated by the Farm Bill. This will impact crops beginning with the May 20, 2014 actuarial filing and continue through the November 30, 2014 actuarial filing.
- Prohibition of CAT on Crops Used for Grazing: On April 15, 2014, RMA issued a guidance document to amend the Special Provisions of Insurance for the annual forage policy. This amendment sets forth the prohibition of CAT coverage on crops and grasses used for grazing.
- Premium Amounts for Catastrophic Risk Protection (CAT): On April 3, 2014, RMA issued a public release of actuarial documents to revise the premium rates charged for CAT coverage to be based on the average historical "loss ratio" plus a reasonable reserve.
- Publication of Information on Violations of Premium Adjustments: On March 27, 2014, the Risk Management Agency (RMA) established a section entitled "Rebating Violations and Sanctions" in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its public website. RMA will add information to this section when it determines that rebating violations have occurred.
TITLE XII - Miscellaneous
- Pima Cotton: On May 2, 2014 USDA announced that the Foreign Agricultural Service will accept claims under the Pima Agriculture Cotton Trust Fund for calendar year 2014.
Catfish Inspection: On April 30, 2014 the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Food and Drug Administration signed an MOU to improve food safety, fraud prevention, and inspection of catfish and catfish products. FSIS continues to submit monthly reports to Congress on implementation of this provision from the Farm Bill.
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