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What's on Ed Schafer's mind

USDA Secretary Ed Schafer stopped by to visit the annual meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Here's what's on his mind.

  • The new farm bill
    The short answer is there isn't one...yet.

    "We are still in the process," says Schafer. "I don't know what else there is to say. There is a big difference between the House and Senate."

    How to pay for the increasing expense of the proposed farm bill is a sticking point. The cost is now hovering around $10 billion over baseline projections. To reach this level, offset funding and reforms must occur, says Schafer. One unresolved reform desired by the Bush administration and some in Congress are farm subsidy caps.

Trade
"Agriculture is huge when it comes to trade with this country, and we don't want to do to do anything to lessen the standing of international trade," says Schafer.

A key to boosting trade will be Congressional ratification of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, says Schafer. Besides opening up markets to U.S. goods, another benefit of the trade agreement is a chance to increase stability in a region where several nations are unfriendly to the U.S. "Colombia is a strong, strategic ally of the U.S.," Schafer says.

He adds Colombia has shifted its agriculture away from growing crops for illegal uses toward crops for legal uses. "The farmers who used to grow poppies (for opium) are now growing flowers, fruits and (other) legitimate crops," he says.

Food safety
The first thing Schafer says he faced as USDA Secretary was a beef recall resulting from allegations of animal cruelty by a California meat packer.

"We made the (recall) decision because its sends a message that we are serious about food safety," he says. "Rules and regulations are in place. We won't tolerate any violation of any sort in this process."

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)
It will remain. Schafer acknowledged opening up the CRP would help make some grain available to quell shortage fears for end users. However, opening up the CRP would not make a huge difference. "If you run the numbers, you couldn't make a big enough difference even by releasing all CRP acres," he says.

Schafer notes the clock is ticking when it comes to enacting a farm bill. Congress faces expiration of a 33-day extension on April 18.

"What the president has said is we won't sign extension after extension after extension," says Schafer. "We have to get the work done."

If agreement is not reached, one option is to extend current farm legislation for a year or two.

"I don't think that's a good option," says Schafer. "We'd leave a lot on the table. Most (farm) operators would have a better safety net with a new farm bill than the old one."

One option that won't happen is going back to permanent farm law based on the 1949 Farm Bill, says Schafer.

"No legislator in his right mind is going to support the permanent law," Schafer says. "We are not going to allow a law that will have food prices triple or quadruple overnight."

USDA Secretary Ed Schafer stopped by to visit the annual meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington, D.C., on Monday. Here's what's on his mind.

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