Vilsack says USDA ready for new farm policy

By Sarah Gonzalez

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2012- If Congress passes a five-year farm bill before the end of the year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he would “move heaven and Earth” to prepare USDA for the change. He made the comment after speaking Thursday afternoon at the Farm Journal Forum. 

“Once Congress does its job, we'll do our job,” Vilsack said. He also noted the “worst thing that could happen to USDA is if the sequester gets triggered, because that gives me no capacity to manage.” 

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Vilsack discussed the meeting he hosted at USDA with the four Senate and House Agriculture Committee principals last week, where he said he detected a “good amount of flexibility” on the commodity title and food stamp portions of a farm bill.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said earlier at the forum that she would be willing to find more savings in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through eliminating inefficiencies and fraud. SNAP, or the food stamp program, demonstrates one of the largest disparities between the Senate and House Agriculture Committee farm bill language.

“I'm hopeful we'll ultimately get to point where folks see common ground,” Vilsack said, adding he wants to see the policy prepared so if Congress agrees on a deficit reduction package, farm legislation could be attached to it “without delay.”

Whatever solution Congress devises for farm policy, Vilsack said it would involve a different structure than direct payments.

House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., spoke earlier in the day about a “transition period” for the farm bill. Although not calling it an extension of current policy, he emphasizing that the farm bill might need a “transition” to prepare for whatever happens regarding efforts to avert the “fiscal cliff.”

He also maintained his support for a target price program in addition to a revenue safety net in the commodity title, saying that farmers need a choice in their coverage options.  

“If you depend exclusively on the revenue program, after a certain point you'll fall off a different kind of cliff,” he added. “We need to give our producers a choice. That's what price loss coverage is all about.”

Later in the day, Stabenow also noted differences between the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate on the commodity title of the farm bill, noting that she would be willing to accept a counter-cyclical option as a part of the revenue program the Senate passed in its legislation. She noted a near-unanimous agreement that taxpayers should no longer fund direct payments and adamantly opposed an extension.  

“We're not going to do an extension, we're not going to kick the can down the road,” she said.

Stabenow noted she would like the House to take up a stand-alone five-year farm bill, but she would be “equally happy” for a farm bill agreement to be included in a broader deficit reduction plan.


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