USDA Under Sec. Jim Miller promises improvements for SURE payments & IT

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, March 25 – When lawmakers voiced concerns about continuing problems at USDA, USDA Under Secretary James Miller acknowledged in a Thursday hearing that even with tremendous advances over the past year at USDA, “we have to get better at ensuring that we are providing an improved level of service to our farmers, that we make it as easy and convenient as possible.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro(D-CT), Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, asked Miller to find ways to accelerate USDA payments to farmers. When Miller and other USDA officials explained that some delays are due to outdated computer systems, DeLauro repeatedly asked Miller to guarantee that the millions already authorized for IT (information technology) upgrades and another $95 million requested for FY ‘11 will be spent specifically on IT rather than once again diverted to other uses. Both Miller and Farmer Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Jonathan Coppess made that commitment.

Miller said one problem being tackled urgently is that despite new levels of cooperation between USDA’s different agencies, “FSA, RMA, NRCS, we’re all working off of different databases.” Coppess forecast that this IT incompatibility will be fully eliminated by 2014 as part of USDA’s aggressive modernization program.

DeLauro specifically pointed to the SURE (Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments) program which still hasn’t completed payments on 2008 crop losses, saying “that’s a long time for these folks to wait for assistance.” Coppess said since USDA has to wait for average marketing year prices to be calculated, SURE “will not be a real-time disaster response. . . It will generally pay out a year to 18 months after the disaster.”

DeLauro said such long waits will mean some smaller farmers won’t survive and that Congress’ intent was to create an effective permanent disaster program. In response, Miller noted that USDA implements procedures to comply with the intent of Congress and some delays are caused by this need to comply. He said current rules limit USDA to making SURE payments “at the end of the marketing year, not directly associated with the production year.” Without advocating changes, he suggested possible changes which Congress could implement, enabling USDA to make faster payments: authorize advance payments based on preliminary calculations or base the payments on different pricing calculations.

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