April 4, 2014
At a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed questions concerning the department’s implementation of key farm bill provisions and role in supporting rural economies. That same day, USDA released a Farm Bill Implementation Progress Report outlining the actions that the agency has taken since enactment of the law, and expected timelines for future actions.
The hearing was billed as a review of the rural economy, but nearly all of the questions dealt solely with the farm bill or the farm economy.
The Secretary began his opening remarks by painting an image of a robust and thriving agricultural economy, citing record farm income last year, record enrollment in conservation programs, record expansion of local and regional markets outlets, and a below average debt to income ratio for farmers.
Secretary Vilsack stressed that the farm bill includes 450 complex provisions that will require the coordinated and timely engagement of the entire department. He also emphasized that the agency has prioritized the implementation of disaster relief and other safety net programs for farmers that have been affected by the stalled passage of the farm bill and sequestration. Beginning April 15, producers will be able to enroll in the Livestock Indemnity Program and the Livestock Forage Disaster Program.
Lastly, he indicated USDA’s focus on providing educational materials that will assist farmers as they maneuver through the application processes of the various farm bill programs.
Several representatives, including David Scott (D-GA), Tim Walz (D-MN), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Stephen Fincher (R-TN), expressed concern over the increasing average age of farmers and the need to ensure strong continuing programmatic support for beginning farmers to enter the field.
The Secretary assured the committee that USDA remains committed to this issue and is working as quickly as possible to release the request for proposals for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. He also mentioned that the Department is teaming up with AGree to create a farmer corps initiative geared toward supporting young people interested in careers in food and agriculture.
Commodity Program Reform
Representative Randy Neugebauer (R-TX) questioned the agency’s progress on defining the “actively engaged” provision of the commodity title, which restricts commodity subsidies to those “actively engaged” in the farming operation. The Secretary offered little detail on the matter, but assured the Congressman that a rulemaking would take place soon that will grant industry and the public the opportunity to comment.
As we’ve noted, the final farm bill failed to include the subsidy payment reform provisions contained in both the House and Senate versions of the bill — an egregious omission — that would have placed a hard cap on subsidy payments and closed the “active personal management” loophole. Instead, the final farm bill directed USDA to undertake a rulemaking to define what constitutes “active personal management.” USDA backed down from its opportunity to put forward meaningful reform of this rule in 2010, but now has another chance to put in place an effective and quantifiable management test.
In public comments to the Farm Service Agency last week, NSAC noted its strong disagreement with the view that the new farm bill restricts the Department’s ability to write a rule with a strong management test that applies across the board, urging the agency to develop a rule that results in a real payment limitation as opposed to the charade that is the status quo.
Crop Insurance Reform
Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) inquired into the progress on USDA efforts to develop a whole farm revenue risk management product for diversified farms. Whole Farm revenue insurance is an NSAC priority and we have urged USDA to quickly implement this important new farm bill option and to offer it nationwide.
With safety net programs set as priorities for the agency, Vilsack stated that USDA hopes to have pilot programs for both whole farm and specialty crop coverage launched in 2015. It is not yet clear if the launch will be nationwide or not. NSAC will continue to monitor progress closely. The proposed new whole farm product will likely be before the Board of the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation in May.