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Some Farm Bill Options by Fall -- Vilsack

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday that farmers might be able to reallocate their planting history, known as base acres, at Farm Service Agency offices by this fall and that money for helping farmers make signup decisions will be going to universities and educators by the end of this month.

"It's our hope that by the fall, folks will be able to make appropriate adjustments to their acres and production," Vilsack said during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill, known as the Agricultural Act of 2014.

Vilsack was responding to questions from Senator John Walsh (D-MT), who was appointed to fill out the term of Senator Max Baucus, who is now the U.S. ambassador to China.

Walsh told Vilsack that the staff in local FSA offices in his state haven't been able to answer questions about the new farm programs that they've been getting from farmers and ranchers.

"I know they don't have the answers yet, but it's important that they feel free to talk about the new programs," Walsh said.

The new farm law will allow farmers to change their base acres to reflect more recent planting decisions, as well as allow them to report more recent yields. Both of the farm bill's major new commodity programs, a revenue program called Agriculture Risk Coverage, and a target price program called Price Loss Coverage, will make payments tied to a farm's historical base acres, not the acres actually planted to crops. Updated yields would be used to determine any PLC payments a farm might receive if prices fall enough to trigger the program. They would not be used in calculating any payments made under the ARC program.

Making changes in either base acres or yields is optional and not required for enrolling in the new programs.

Some FSA staff members have told Agriculture.com that they expected that farmers might be able to reallocate their base acres later this summer. That's only a first step in enrollment. Farmers will have a chance later to choose between the ARC and PLC programs. Since decisions on base acres are just one part of a complicated puzzle farmers must deal with, USDA has been trying to get money for educational programs out to universities quickly.

That has generated some controversy. One source tells Agricuture.com that some feared that one university, Texas A&M, would get all of the funds for setting up decision tools for farmers.

Senator John Thune (R-SD) told Vilsack that he wanted USDA to also select a lead institution in the Midwest to help explain the programs to farmers.

Vilsack assured Thune that the department is trying to avoid any regional biases in the information going out to farmers. 

"I think there is a recognition that we have to be very careful about these selections," Vilsack said.

Vilsack and USDA drew praise for the department's relatively fast re-launch of disaster programs for livestock producers from Thune and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND).

Thune asked Vilsack how much had been spent in his state so far. Ranchers were hit hard by cattle losses during an early fall snowstorm last year. Since April 15, they've been able to sign up for the Livestock Forage Program and Livestock Indemnity Program. 

Vilsack said that more than 2,500 applications had been submitted to FSA offices in that state.

Later, Thune said in a statement: "I'm pleased USDA has worked quickly to provide a needed lifeline to the ranchers throughout western South Dakota who lost more than 40,000 head of livestock in last October’s winter storm Atlas. I will continue to work with the USDA to monitor the process to ensure that producers in need of assistance continue to receive aid as quickly as possible."

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