WASHINGTON, April 3, 2014— Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released several implementation dates for farm bill programs today, but timing for Commodity Title program rules is still vague.

Vilsack said during a House Agriculture Committee hearing on the state of the rural economy, he expects “everything in place” for Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) program details by the fall. Producers must decide this year between PLC or ARC programs for the life of the farm bill.

With the recent enactment of the farm bill, or the Agricultural Act of 2014, members’ questions focused on USDA’s progress toward implementing the law. 

Overall, “We are making tremendous progress implementing the new Farm Bill,” Vilsack said on the same day his agency released an implementation “progress report.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the committee’s ranking member, said passing the farm bill was almost a miracle, adding “hopefully implementation will be a lot easier.”

Vilsack said that some crop insurance provisions, like conservation compliance rules, may be delayed until 2015.

The farm bill also requires USDA to define “actively engaged” producers, or those who are able to participate in the Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage programs.

“This is a very difficult issue to provide the kind of clarity and certainty that people would like to have,” he said, adding that the public will be able to comment on a proposed definition. 

Vilsack reiterated that disaster programs that expired in 2011 are USDA’s first priority, particularly for livestock producers that suffered from the 2012 drought and an early season blizzard in South Dakota. Beginning April 15, producers will be able to enroll in the Livestock Indemnity Program and the Livestock Forage Disaster Program.

In response to inquiries from Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., on remaining payment allocations from the last farm bill, Vilsack said while 90 percent of final payments were made in February, the remaining should be made in late spring.

USDA launched a website today that provides details on farm bill implementation. The department also said it will announce next week funding for the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) and Market Access Program (MAP) and Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program (FMD).

Additionally, the Risk Management Agency (RMA) this week is scheduled to issue documents to revise the premium rates charged for Catastrophic Risk Protection (CAT) coverage.

During the hearing, committee members questioned Vilsack on a variety of other agricultural issues.

"I am concerned about the administration's regulatory initiatives that are often created by people who have no frame of reference for how farmers produce our nation's food supply,” Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla, said in his closing statement. “We will continue to monitor progress on implementing the farm bill, as well as provide oversight of any initiatives that could jeopardize the livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers.”

Several members questioned the secretary about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to define its jurisdiction over “waters of the United States.”

“I get a lot of complaints from my farmers in Georgia about the navigable waters issue,” said David Scott, D-Ga. “I hope you will do more. They cannot run their farms in an efficient way going one day to the next not knowing the definition of ‘navigable waters.’”

Vilsack said the EPA proposal reaffirms permitting exemptions for agriculture, including agricultural discharges, maintenance of drains and ditches, wastewater treatment and artificial ponds. 

He also noted that EPA identified 56 conservation practices used in agriculture that would not require permitting. “Then they don’t have to worry about notifying anybody or getting a permit,” he said, adding that that list may be expanded with additional conservation practices over time.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., asked about the length of time it takes for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to approve petitions for biotechnology products.

Vilsack said USDA “knocked off at least a year” in its improved approval process it launched in 2011. “Part of the challenge is we’re using a new system….but as the new system is fully embraced, I think you’re going to see significant time reductions,” he said.

“People question whether we’ve done the right assessment or environmental review,” Vilsack noted.  “That’s often what slows it down.”

Vilsack answered concerns from several committee members about potential Farm Service Agency (FSA) office closures. In his 2015 budget plan, President Barack Obama proposed consolidating 250 Farm Service Agency in an effort to “modernize” USDA. 

However, Vilsack said no closures would occur this year. “When and if consolidation of offices occurs in 2015, it’s about using resources to strengthen the remaining offices,” he said. “I don’t think there needs to be as much concern as there may be.”


For more news, go to www.agri-pulse.com