May 27, 2011
On Thursday, May 26, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed members of the Senate Agriculture Committee at the Committee’s first hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill.
A second panel of witnesses followed, comprised of former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, Michigan farmer and United Soybean Board founding director Barry Mumby, Dr. Andrew Rosenberg of Conservation International, Douglas DeVries of Deer and Company, and Dr. Per Pinstrup-Anderson, Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University.
In response to a question from Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Chairwoman of the Committee, Secretary Vilsack listed his top three lessons learned as 1) the importance of investing in research, both public and private, 2) the need to conserve natural resources, and 3) the need to use science and technology to solve problems.
Vilsack stressed the difficulty of achieving results with a tightened budget, given that “no doubt the 2012 Farm Bill will be smaller than the 2008 Farm Bill.” He asked the Committee to avoid “prescriptive programs” and give USDA the flexibility to shift funding as needed as long as it meets overall goals.
At the same time, Vilsack noted that he was concerned about the proposed cuts to USDA conservation programs, because of their benefit to both producers and the environment. Referencing the Conservation Effects Assessment Program (CEAP), he argued that conservation programs are working and farmers are willing to enroll, but the programs still need to do more. According to the Secretary, completed CEAP assessments, which focus on particular watersheds around the country, show that we need to promote an integrated approach to conservation, whereby farmers implement a suite of interrelated conservation practices rather than individual, unrelated practices.
He noted that cuts to conservation programs would be particularly harmful to mid-sized producers and that many would find it difficult to maintain their operations without support for conservation. The Secretary also specifically mentioned the need to fully fund conservation technical assistance, which is used by NRCS to put ‘boots on the ground’ to help farmers and ranchers implement conservation practices. Technical assistance has been chronically underfunded, and is once again cut in the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s fiscal year 2012 appropriations bill, which the Subcommittee passed earlier this week.
Although USDA has had success with the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Vilsack testified, it has not been enough to reverse the trend of an aging and shrinking base of farmers and ranchers. He suggested a greater focus on creating and supporting new farmers and ranchers, perhaps by giving credit for “sweat equity” or modifying the tax code.
Another area of concern to Secretary Vilsack was the elimination of the Rural Energy for American Program (REAP) in the House Agriculture Appropriations bill. Cutting funding would “make it very tough to get ethanol to market…don’t pull the rug out too fast,” he urged. The Secretary argued that, alternatively, ethanol subsidies should be ratcheted down slowly while resources are shifted to the production of advanced biofuels.
Finally, Sen. Johanns (R-NE) asked Vilsack about the role of crop insurance in the safety net. Vilsack stressed that it depends on the crop, and urged the Committee to be mindful of the fact that many small and mid-size farmers depend on other supports, such as conservation and rural development programs.