July 1, 2010
A funny thing happened on the way to a Senate Agriculture Committee farm bill hearing to review progress on implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill’s commodity, crop insurance, and disaster assistance programs. As the lead witness at the June 30 hearing, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack did not read a single word or convey a single idea from his prepared written remarks on the day’s subject at hand. Instead, he used the opportunity to launch into an eloquent plea to focus significant attention in the 2012 Farm Bill on new and beginning farmers.
According to Vilsack, when a group at the Department started thinking about the farm bill earlier this year, he realized there was no firm vision for the future among the people who were gathered. He told the Committee that part of his vision is to increase populations and incomes in rural America, to improve prosperity and economic development and begin to restore lost political clout. Moreover, the Secretary said that increasing small and mid-sized farming operations has to be a subset of that broader goal, and that in order to make headway on the subgoal, significant attention needs to be paid to the needs of young, new and beginning farmers.
The Secretary noted there have been policy goals by previous Administrations and Congresses to increase the number of police officers and the number of teachers. Why not set a goal in the farm bill to add at least 100,000 new farmers in the next few years, he asked? What if we set up advisory committees in local communities to encourage new young farmers? What if we create a new venue to help provide entrepreneurial training for farmers and food system enterprises? What if we found ways to encourage transitions from retiring farmers to new farms? It is time, the Secretary said in so many words, to stop bemoaning the aging of American agriculture and to start an aggressive effort to reverse it.
The Secretary then concluded his brief remarks by moving from farmers back to small town residents, noting the high percentage of persistent poverty counties that are rural and the need to address those problems as he returned to his bigger theme of increasing rural populations and incomes.
Not exactly, perhaps, what the assembled Senators were expecting to hear at a hearing on commodity and crop insurance policy. But not ill-received either. In fact, later in the hearing, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, noted that Vilsack’s opening statement was one of the best he has ever heard at any hearing in the House or Senate Agriculture Committees.
Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) noted in his remarks that equipment leasing is an ever more prevalent reality in farming and then pondered out loud whether there might be a creative way in the farm bill to incentivize equipment leasing for new farmers to help the beginners while helping agribusiness as well.
Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) also noted his appreciation of the Secretary’s beginning farmer remarks.
True, the hearing then mostly went back to detailed discussions about ACRE, SURE, CCPs, SRA, WTO, and the rest of the alphabet soup of farm commodity policy, which is as it should be given the topic for the hearing. NSAC, though, greatly appreciates the Secretary’s choice to highlight a major theme which NSAC has pursued, sometimes virtually alone among farm interest groups in Washington, during the last four farm bills over the past two decades.
We also have some pertinent questions, the central one of which is this – if the Administration wants Congress to pay more attention to beginning farmer and rancher policy, what is USDA doing to get its own house in order?
For instance, the last farm bill authorized the creation of a new Office of Advocacy and Outreach to coordinate policy department-wide on beginning farmer and minority farmer issues, yet progress to get it off the ground has been very, very slow, and the office itself has been housed deep within the bureaucracy rather than directly under the Secretary as specified in the Farm Bill. Hopefully with staff about to be hired, the office will be full- functioning soon.
Or for instance, the last farm bill authorized the creation of a Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account program to assist low income individuals to become farmers through matched savings accounts and financial training. Yet the USDA budget request to Congress this year did not request any money for the program, and, as a result, it is very uncertain if the program will get off the ground.
Or for instance, the last farm bill made an earlier pilot program linking retiring and new farmers through federal guarantees of private land contracts into a nationwide program, yet USDA has yet to implement the new program two-plus years after the farm bill became law.
Or for instance, the new Conservation Reserve Program Transition Incentive Program (CRP-TIP) was officially begun by USDA’s Farm Service Agency recently. It provides incentives for CRP contract holders who do not intend to get back into farming to sell or lease to beginning or minority farmers. With the rule for the program now in place, the question now is where is USDA’s plan to aggressively promote and do outreach on the program?
Or for instance, the statutory Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers, whose charge it is to advise the Secretary on how USDA can better serve beginning farmers and adopt policies to create new farming opportunities, has ceased functioning during the first two years of the Obama Administration after never missing a year during the Clinton and Bush years. Why have no appointments been made and no meetings held?
As in the past four farm bills, NSAC will likely once again try to move a beginning farmer package, working closely with member groups around the country and with a wide and increasing array of congressional offices with a strong interest in the issue. We are quite heartened by the Secretary’s remarks and very much look forward to the increased attention and the future sharing of ideas with the Department. In the meantime, we will continue to try to hold the Department accountable to fulfill the promise of the last farm bill to the country’s growing cadre of new and beginning farmers.