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Vilsack signals changes at USDA

Agriculture.com Staff 01/26/2009 @ 11:52am

President Barack Obama's promise of change is also reaching the U.S. Department of Agriculture, newly confirmed Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made clear to reporters in his first formal press conference Monday.

Vilsack promised to modernize the Department's computer technology and said that one of the first things he did last week was to meet with his staff to go over existing ethics standards at the USDA as well as new ones ordered by the President.

Vilsack said that under President Obama's order freezing the Bush administration’s last minute rules, his department has already acted on two of them.

It has withdrawn a $3 million cut from the specialty crop block grant program in the new farm bill. Vilsack said the administration supports efforts to encourage local production of fruits and vegetables.

Vilsack also wants to take another look at the Bush administration's last minute rule on limits for commodity program payments. Critics of the rule, including Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, have said that it continues a weak definition of what it means to be actively engaged in farming. That loophole has allowed urban owners of farmland to collect payments illegally, some argue.

"I've directed the Department to extend the comment period for the payment limit rule for an additional 60 days," Vilsack said. The President wants public debate on the issue and so far, the Bush administration rule has generated "a small number of comments," Vilsack said. "I am particularly interested in suggestions that will help the Department target payments to farmers who need them."

He added that any changes the new administration makes to the rule would not affect payments for the 2009 crop, since farmers and lenders have already made plans based on the current understanding of payment limits.

The USDA hasn't yet indicated what, if any, changes it would make to the Bush administration rule for implementation of mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL), but Vilsack said "I want to state very clearly that I strongly support COOL."

Vilsack pledged strong enforcement of existing laws administered by USDA, including the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Vilsack also said that USDA will be involved in helping to create the "green collar jobs" in the biofuels and energy industry that the President campaigned on. The Secretary said USDA will work very quickly to implement new programs in the farm bill to pay farmers to raise energy crops and to help existing ethanol plants move toward using cellulosic feedstocks as well as corn.

USDA will also conduct research on how farmers can participate in carbon trading and sequestration programs, he said.

But the USDA's work in carbon sequestration will also involve its Forest Service and efforts to manage forests to reduce wildfires, Vilsack said. "Right now with uncontrolled wildfires we're actually contributing greenhouse gases rather than reducing them," he said.

Vilsack didn't wade into the details of how the Administration will treat calls for changing the amount of ethanol that can be blended with regular unleaded gasoline, which is controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency, not USDA. The current 10% limit is seen by the industry as a "blend wall" that's preventing greater use of ethanol in the fuel supply.

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