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Secretary Vilsack Provides Update on Farm Bill Implementation to Senate Committee

May 8, 2014

On May 7, 2014 the Senate Agriculture Committee held a hearing to discuss the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) progress in implementing the 2014 Farm Bill.  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was the sole witness.  He again stressed that the agency is working as swiftly as possible to roll out key farm bill programs.  The Department also released a title-by-title update on a wide variety of farm bill implementation activities.

Some Hearing Highlights

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) pressed Secretary Vilsack on the topic of farm subsidy reform, and USDA’s authority to define “actively engaged in farming” to close the loophole of payment eligibility.  He presented an example of a farm in Louisiana that had 17 registered owners including 16 who were eligible for farm subsidies due to the huge loopholes that are currently built into USDA payment limitation “actively engaged in farming” rules for who qualifies for commodity subsidies.  The Senator stressed the need for USDA to take full advantage of it’s authority to clarify this rule in order to end wasteful and inequitable subsidy pay-outs.

Secretary Vilsack agreed that the credibility of farm safety net programs must be maintained, and that many people have learned to “be creative” and take advantage of the system as it is currently in place.  The two seemed to disagree, however, in what USDA can and cannot do about the lack of program integrity.  While both agreed the final 2014 Farm Bill leans against reform, the Senator suggested USDA already has broad pre-existing authority to close loopholes and reform the program.  The Secretary did not express firm support for that view, however.

Another issue raised that has been very contentious is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed “Waters of the U.S.” rule.  Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) expressed great concern over the rule as proposed, and suggested that many farmers and ranchers in his state were opposed to the rule.

Secretary Vilsack assured the Senator that USDA and EPA are working collaboratively on the final rule, and that they are being sensitive and careful to outline clear exemptions for “normal farming practices.”  The Secretary also emphasized the interpretative rule that accompanies the proposed rule, designating 56 farm conservation practices that farmers can undertake without requiring a Clean Water Act permit.

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) both spoke in support of the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCCP), the new name for the conservation partnership programs from the past several farm bills. RCPP targets conservation dollars to special local and regional projects, particularly those that engage state and local agencies, utilities, and non-governmental organizations in delivering conservation programs alongside USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Stabenow expressed the view that the program has the potential to transform the future of agricultural stewardship programs.  Bennet encouraged USDA to consider designating portions of the Colorado River as well as the Ogallala Aquifer as critical conservation areas within the program.

The request for proposals for the program, as well as the designation of critical conservation areas that will receive a portion of overall RCPP funding, are expected to be released toward the end of May.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) was mentioned by Senator Robert Casey (D-PA) and Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) as an important program to support access to healthy foods in their communities.  Senator Gillibrand stressed the importance of ensuring that future HFFI investments be available to both urban and rural areas, since food security is prevalent in both settings.  Secretary Vilsack echoed her sentiment and expressed a similar desire to broaden the reach of the program.  HFFI did not receive any farm bill funding, so it will not exist at USDA unless and until the annual agricultural appropriations bill designates money for the program.

The full video recording of the hearing can be found here.

Categories: Farm Bill

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