Vilsack pressed on farm economy, regulations
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - In what could be his final appearance on Capitol Hill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the farm economy as basically sound but appealed for flexibility from Congress to aid dairy producers and other struggling sectors.
Vilsack also promised the Senate Agriculture Committee that the livestock and poultry industry would be allowed to provide feedback on contract regulations that the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration is expected to issue before President Obama leaves office.
Vilsack added that the department would alter proposed new requirements for retailers that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to address claims that 100,000 convenience stores would be forced to leave the program.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that many farm households would be losing money if not for their off-farm earnings. “The farmers and ranchers that I talk to remain in distress and worry whether their family farm can stay afloat.”
Vilsack emphasized that exports are expected to rise in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, and that farm debt loads remain far below the levels of the 1980s crisis. Only 10 percent of farm operations are classified as highly or extremely leveraged, he said.
“We've had the best eight years in agriculture exports in the history of the country and hopefully that's going to continue,” he said. Farm exports are projected to rise by $6 billion in 2017 to $133 billion.
Vilsack acknowledged that the dairy industry in particular is struggling but he said that the department's ability to help is limited by restrictions congressional appropriators have placed on purchasing surplus commodities through the Section 32 program. USDA agreed in August to purchase $20 million in cheese, but that's all the department can do, he said.
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“Everything I can do I have done. Every penny I could spend I have spent,” Vilsack told committee member Pat Leahy, D-Vt.
Vilsack said that farmers could have done more to protect themselves from the downturn if they had not reduced their coverage levels this year under the Margin Protection Program. MPP payments would have totaled $40 million had producers maintained the same coverage they purchased in 2015. Instead, USDA payments amounted to only $11 million, Vilsack said.
Vilsack suggested Congress consider revising the program in the next farm bill to take into consider regional differences in feed costs.
The restrictions on Section 32 stem in part from Vilsack's use of the program ahead of the 2010 congressional elections.