Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) described Wednesday’s House Agriculture Committee Hearing on the Farm Bill as “two-and-a-half hours to kick off two-and-a-half years.”
The hearing was the first of Committee Chairman Collin Peterson’s (D-MN) meetings to get a head start on planning for the next Farm Bill, scheduled for completion in 2012.
Over the past few months, Rep. Peterson’s comments to the press have suggested that he is ready for change in all areas of the farm bill, but particularly to improvements in the structure of the farm safety net that dates from the Depression. He has questioned the effects of direct payments on increasing land values, which may make it more difficult for beginning farmers to get started. And on the issue of crop insurance, he has mentioned the possibility of whole-farm crop insurance policies tied to revenue rather than yield that could be more equitable for small and mid-sized diversified operations.
Yet Wednesday’s hearing barely brushed on the issue of direct payments, except for some passing references to the ACRE program, established in the 2008 Farm Bill, as an alternative system to traditional subsidies. Crop insurance came up multiple times, but mostly in the context of ongoing crop insurance re-negotiations between USDA and the crop insurance companies, which could potentially impact the 2012 Farm Bill by reducing the amount of money in the baseline.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified at the hearing and focused his opening statement on two priorities: creating more opportunities in rural America, and improving the farm safety net to bolster the number of farmers able to participate in production agriculture.
Ranking Member Lucas expressed concern at the Secretary’s first priority, suggesting that the focus on programs outside of traditional farm programs would “turn rural America into a bedroom community” where people would have to commute from the farm to the town. Vilsack responded that expanded opportunities in rural areas such as biorefinery jobs, the broadband which might allow for online entrepreneurship, and new income from expanded local and regional food economies, could revitalize struggling communities and give young people more incentive to stay on the farm.
In response to two questions, Secretary Vilsack hinted that he is trying to convince the White House to adopt some type of special budget rule that would allow USDA to reduce subsidies to crop insurance companies in the ongoing re-negotiations yet still credit the savings achieved back to Congress. Congress could then use the savings to help pay for the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill being worked on this year and/or save it for the 2012 Farm Bill. Under normal budget rules, however, that is not possible, and the Secretary gave no further insight into how it might possibly work.
Four more field hearings are scheduled over the next few weeks:
- Friday, April 30th – 1:00 p.m. CDT, Iowa State Fair Grounds, Penningroth Sale Center, Des Moines, Iowa
- Saturday, May 1st – 1:00 p.m. MDT, Northwest Nazarene University, Old Science Lecture Hall, Nampa, ID
- Monday, May 3rd- 9:00 a.m. PDT, Fresno City Hall Council Chambers, 2nd Floor, Fresno, CA
- Tuesday, May 4th- 8:00 a.m. MDT, Laramie County Community College, Center for Conferences and Institutes, Centennial Room 130, Cheyenne, WY
A second set of field hearings in Georgia, Alabama, Texas and South Dakota will begin in mid-May.