Vilsack points to Farm Bill achievements on first anniversary

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 5, 2015 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack provided an update on implementation of the 2014 farm bill, signed by President Obama almost one year ago, saying that the legislation has provided investments that are creating jobs, driving long-term economic growth and helping rural communities.

In a conference call with reporters, Vilsack reminded farmers that they will need to sign up for new commodity programs authorized by the farm bill in next couple of months and that the department is still working on a definition of an “actively engaged” farmer, which could affect payments under government programs. He said the definition would be finished in the coming months.

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The department also provided a fact sheet touting how the farm bill's implementation helped U.S. farmers and ranchers. Among other things, it noted that since the farm bill's enactment, USDA was able to bring critical disaster assistance to 226,772 producers in 46 states after drought, blizzards, flooding and other extreme weather. USDA also pointed out that about 23,000 dairies, more than half of all dairy farms in America, are now enrolled in the new Margin Protection Program.

Vilsack also commented on the crop insurance cuts suggested in the White House budget proposal for fiscal year 2016. The Obama administration wants to take $16 billion out of crop insurance over the next decade.

Because lower commodity prices will likely trigger higher-than-expected farm program payouts, Vilsack said the administration is targeting crop insurance to make up for the potential higher payouts. “We're attempting to strike that balance,” he said.

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Vilsack also issued a reminder that commodity crop producers have a couple of deadlines arriving: They must decide to reallocate their base acres and update their yield by Feb. 27, and then they must choose one of two new commodity programs - Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage - for each crop on each farm by March 31. This decision will last the life of the farm bill, or about the next five years. Vilsack said “a relatively small percentage” of the roughly 1 million farms in the country has made that decision.

During an interview in New Orleans last week, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden said farmers may want to wait until the last minute to make this decision, but “we will have a workload challenge if everyone waits until the end.”

Because the PLC and ARC programs replaced direct payments in the farm bill, “there is a lot more burden on the individual producer,” Harden noted. However, once producers use the decision tools funded in part by USDA and developed by land-grant universities, “anxiety [about the decision] usually goes away.”"

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