Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack wants the next farm bill to include reforms for disaster relief and focus more on farmers who haven’t done as well financially in recent years as larger producers. 

Talking to reporters after an appearance before the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Vilsack said that existing disaster programs aren’t as flexible as they should be for addressing varying regional needs or covering damage from unusual storms such as the derecho that tore through his home state of Iowa in 2020.  

He stopped short of saying that the farm bill should establish a new, permanent disaster program, as some have proposed on Capitol Hill. 

Congress has for several years been appropriating special, ad hoc funding for agricultural disasters, most recently as part of the omnibus funding package enacted in December. 

“We need to figure out … a disaster approach that is flexible enough to deal with the regional differences that we see in disasters and be flexible enough to deal with the disaster that we didn't know was going to occur,” Vilsack said. 

He used the Farm Bureau speech to announce a new round of assistance under the temporary Emergency Relief Program USDA created with $10 billion in ad hoc disaster funding authorized last year for losses in 2020 and 2021. The latest round of payments will primarily benefit farmers who didn’t have crop insurance or coverage under USDA's Non-insured Crop Disaster Assistance program, or NAP.

Vilsack also announced a new round of pandemic assistance designed to fill a gap in earlier payments. Eligible producers must have had a 15% or greater decrease in gross revenue for 2020.  

He stressed that payments under both programs will be tied to revenue rather than acreage. 

“This is an effort to try to address the issue of those who may not have large-scale production systems, but who do suffer significantly during a disaster,” Vilsack said. Those producers include “beginning farmers who are just getting started and don't have the equity and capacity to withstand a disaster.” 

The omnibus funding package includes $3.7 billion to cover farmers’ losses in 2022. Vilsack said it was too early to say how that money will be allocated. 

Vilsack wants Congress to pick up on his efforts to ensure that smaller-scale and struggling farmers benefit from USDA programs. 

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‘We have to have a farm bill that doesn’t just focus on programs, but addresses problems,” he told reporters. 

“And I don’t think I’m alone in being concerned about the fact that we’ve got farmers who are doing quite well, and more power to them, but we’ve got a lot of farmers that aren’t, and we want to keep them on the land. We want to create new ways for them to profit from their farming operations.” 

Vilsack used his Farm Bureau speech to press the same concern about ensuring that smaller farmers aren’t left behind. 

“What do we want to do with the farm bill? What do we want to do with all these programs? We want to create a vibrant and resilient rural economy,” he said. “We want to create the opportunity for farmers not just to depend on a commodity market that can change on a whim.”

USDA estimated net U.S. farm income would reach $160.5 billion in 2022, a 13.8% increase over 2021 due to strong commodity markets. Net farm income rose more than 49% in 2021.

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