WASHINGTON, Sept. 21, 2016 - In what could be his final appearance on Capitol Hill, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack defended the farm economy as basically sound but appealed for flexibility from Congress to aid dairy producers and other struggling sectors.
Vilsack also promised the Senate Agriculture Committee that the livestock and poultry industry would be allowed to provide feedback on contract regulations that the Grain Inspection and Packers and Stockyards Administration is expected to issue before President Obama leaves office.
Vilsack added that the department would alter proposed new requirements for retailers that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to address claims that 100,000 convenience stores would be forced to leave the program.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said that many farm households would be losing money if not for their off-farm earnings. “The farmers and ranchers that I talk to remain in distress and worry whether their family farm can stay afloat.”
Vilsack emphasized that exports are expected to rise in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, and that farm debt loads remain far below the levels of the 1980s crisis. Only 10 percent of farm operations are classified as highly or extremely leveraged, he said.
“We’ve had the best eight years in agriculture exports in the history of the country and hopefully that’s going to continue,” he said. Farm exports are projected to rise by $6 billion in 2017 to $133 billion.
Vilsack acknowledged that the dairy industry in particular is struggling but he said that the department’s ability to help is limited by restrictions congressional appropriators have placed on purchasing surplus commodities through the Section 32 program. USDA agreed in August to purchase $20 million in cheese, but that’s all the department can do, he said.
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“Everything I can do I have done. Every penny I could spend I have spent,” Vilsack told committee member Pat Leahy, D-Vt.
Vilsack said that farmers could have done more to protect themselves from the downturn if they had not reduced their coverage levels this year under the Margin Protection Program. MPP payments would have totaled $40 million had producers maintained the same coverage they purchased in 2015. Instead, USDA payments amounted to only $11 million, Vilsack said.
In 2015, 44 percent of the farms participating in MPP selected the lowest coverage level. This year, more than 77 percent did so.
Vilsack suggested Congress consider revising the program in the next farm bill to take into consider regional differences in feed costs.
The restrictions on Section 32 stem in part from Vilsack’s use of the program ahead of the 2010 congressional elections.
On other issues:
GMO disclosure. Roberts complained that the Agricultural Marketing Service’s proposal for studies about consumer access to electronic information about foods exceeded what was required by the GMO disclosure law passed this summer.
Vilsack disagreed and the said the department was trying to limit the potential for lawsuits over the rule that AMS is required to issue for implementing the disclosure standard.
Roberts aides said the law requires just one study on “Electronic or Digital Link Disclosure,” while the USDA has proposed a second “consumer use” study.
GIPSA rule. There is concern in the industry that USDA will not allow public comment on the rule. He wouldn’t say during the hearing or to reporters afterward in what form the regulations would be released, or whether there would be a public comment period. Instead, he would say only that the department would follow the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act.
“There’s no intent or desire on the part of the USDA as long as I’m secretary to sort of foist something on folks without the opportunity for them to understand what it is or say whether it’s right or wrong,” Vilsack told Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
“I can assure you we’re not going to play a situation where we at the last minute do something and folks have no recourse.”
SNAP retailer rule. The proposed regulations would increase the amount of single-ingredient foods like fruit, vegetables and meat that SNAP-eligible stores must offer. There needs to be more healthful food choices in stores, Vilsack said, but he said the final rule would include some unspecified changes to address concerns that many stores couldn’t meet the requirements.
Catfish inspection. Vilsack said USDA’s catfish inspection was more thorough than it was when the Food and Drug Administration had the responsibility. But he expressed frustration with the continued congressional attempts to end the USDA program. A resolution to kill the rule under which the program operates passed the Senate and is pending in the House.
“I heard here today the necessity of the government providing certainty (about regulations). I would just ask you all to provide certainty on this issue because we keep flipping back and forth,” Vilsack told Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “Just tell us, do you want us to to the inspection or don’t you?”
Undersecretary for trade. Vilsack promised that the department would finish studies required by the 2014 farm bill on reorganizing the department’s trade related programs under a new undersecretary. “I can assure you that we are on track to get these studies completed. This is a very, very complicated issue that you presented to us,” he said.
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