The Department of Agriculture is in touch with Capitol Hill as Democratic leaders work to craft legislation that has the potential to funnel more money into the farm bill and expand the number of producers who could receive funding and assistance for government conservation programs.
In an exclusive interview with Agri-Pulse, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said the package — which carries a price tag of about $3.5 trillion — could offer a substantial boost to USDA’s ability to aid producers in their conservation efforts. USDA officials, he noted, are “in the process of providing technical assistance” to Congress.
“Just about everybody understands and appreciates the need for resources in our traditional conservation programs; there’s a waiting list, if you will, for people that want to utilize those programs,” Vilsack said, specifically mentioning the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program.
“I would anticipate that a significant amount of the resource that’s being discussed as it relates to climate-smart agriculture is going to be focused on those (Natural Resources Conservation Service) programs,” he added. The funding would be beneficial, he noted, in “making sure we have not only the resources but also the personnel” to administer the programs.
The budget resolution that has moved through the House and Senate directs the House Ag Committee to split $89.1 billion among conservation, forestry, research and other areas of jurisdiction. The Senate panel, which also oversees child nutrition, has been allocated $135 billion.
Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has pushed for $50 billion in additional conservation spending, leading to questions about the impact of such an investment through budget reconciliation and its impacts on the next farm bill. But Vilsack says additional money would allow for an expansion of USDA’s conservation footprint.
“Obviously, if we have resources, that’s going to allow us to do more work, and if we do more work, that’s going to allow us to help more people; that’s why we’re in this business,” he said. “We want to make sure that when we get additional authority and additional resources that we invest those resources wisely, and appropriately, and effectively, and efficiently.”
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One area that Vilsack said would be ripe for investment is USDA’s workforce. Across the department, he said there is a shortage of between 3,000-4,000 workers, including the jobs that are needed to provide technical assistance for conservation programs. But additional funding could also address other areas of concern, he noted.
“Can we use technology more effectively? Can we make service and the customer experience better?” he said. “I would say the fact that Congress is considering giving this department more resources in those traditional programs is an indication of the confidence that they’ve had in the past in … (USDA’s) mission areas to do the job well.”
Vilsack also expressed confidence that permanent disaster legislation, an idea kicked around by some leaders on Capitol Hill, would not “have any impact on crop insurance, per se,” but said USDA’s current disaster response capacity is showing stress.
“We’re dealing right now with drought, wildfire, and hurricanes,” he said. “The programs we have in place aren’t as flexible as they need to be able to address and deal with a drought that’s lasted for years as opposed to a drought that’s lasted for months"
He specifically cited the inability of the Livestock Forage Program to cover transportation costs for producers needing to buy feed in drought-stricken areas as an example of the need for a broader program. He said USDA was “learning our lesson” with the current framework of the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program — which, along with a plussed-up version, was unveiled in response to disasters during the Trump administration.
“From what we’re learning about climate, we’re not going to have these one-off situations, we’re going to have long-standing disasters that are more chronic,” he said. “It seems to me you could potentially create more successful help and get help to producers more quickly by having a larger program with more flexibility.”
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