April 16, 2013
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies today to discuss his agency’s FY 2014 budget requests. The Subcommittee will consider USDA’s requests as it writes its funding bill for the year.
Conservation, Drought, and Crop Insurance
Early in the hearing, Subcommittee Ranking Member Sam Farr (D-CA) urged USDA to do more to integrate organic and sustainable farming practices into the programs administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The Congressman noted there are organic farmers who are not able to fully take advantage of NRCS programs because they are geared more toward conventional production systems. Rep. Farr pointed out that there is ample research that demonstrates the conservation and production benefits of organic agriculture.
For more than two years, NSAC and NSAC member groups have been deeply involved in a Conservation Innovation Grant project that is aimed at integrating organic and sustainable agriculture into NRCS operation. We are pleased that the Ranking Member agrees with the importance of this effort.
Following questions by Ranking Member Farr, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) asked the Secretary to talk about what the Agency is doing to mitigate and adapt to drought. Secretary Vilsack highlighted USDA’s efforts to promote key conservation practices that help retain soil and water on the land. The Secretary pointed specifically to the work that the Agency is doing to promote the use of cover crops and multicropping. As part of this effort, the Secretary is bringing together the Risk Management Agency (RMA), NRCS, and external experts to address crop insurance rules that discourage cover crop adoption.
Conservation management practices are key to drought mitigation and preparedness, and we commend the Secretary for this effort. The Secretary also noted that USDA will soon be announcing a climate change initiative.
Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) asked Secretary Vilsack whether or not the President’s FY 2014 budget proposal to reduce crop insurance subsidies would mean that fewer farmers have access to insurance or that fewer companies would offer insurance. Vilsack stated that the proposal would not cause the number of producers or companies to decrease.
In response to a separate question from Congressman Fortenberry regarding the error rate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Secretary noted that this is a real issue for the federal crop insurance program, and one that should be examined. Addressing waste and fraud in the crop insurance program could yield significant savings, according to the Secretary.
Contract Fairness in the Livestock Market
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Secretary Vilsack engaged in a lengthy discussion on the Agency’s work to ensure contract fairness for livestock producers under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. In particular, Rep. Pingree commended the Department for highlighting deceptive practices by meatpackers and processors in the livestock market and noted that she is deeply upset that the final FY 2013 appropriations bill included a rider that forces USDA to repeal existing protections for poultry producers in their dealings with multinational corporations.
Secretary Vilsack also expressed frustration with the inclusion of the FY 2013 rider, and noted that he has heard directly from farmers about the abuses that they face. He suggested that we need not only additional protections in place, but also additional investment in local and regional food system development.
Local and Regional Food Systems
Rep. Pingree then asked the Secretary about his plan to build upon the work that outgoing Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has done to promote local and regional food system development. Secretary Vilsack affirmed his commitment to building local and regional food systems, identifying it as a top priority, and noting its importance to rebuilding the rural economy.
On numerous occasions, he mentioned USDA’s commitment to promoting and improving access to farmers markets. He also noted that more could be done with the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program and the Business and Industry loan program to build food hubs and increase access to healthy foods. The Secretary pledged to work to institutionalize the changes that Deputy Secretary Merrigan brought to the Agency.
This week and next, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold several hearings with various USDA sub-agencies, beginning Wednesday with the Research, Education and Extension mission area. For a full schedule, visit the Subcommittee’s website.