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Engagement needed for farm bill passage, Vilsack says

AMES, Iowa ( of Agriculture Tom Vilsack launched his keynote address at the Iowa Farm Bureau Economic Summit in Ames on Monday with a list of USDA initiatives ranging from climate change to free trade promotion.

But the elephant in the room, a new farm bill, was top of mind for the 300 attendees gathered there.

“We need a new five-year farm bill,” Vilsack said. “The notion that you can split the nutrition title and farm bill is not in our long-term best interest. Only 33,000 farmers are responsible for over 50% of ag production in the U.S. That is less than one-tenth of 1%. The other 99% of Americans don’t necessarily understand or appreciate what you do. They don’t understand the concept of a safety net or that the $17 to $18 billion of crop insurance spent in local communities stimulates the economy. If you separate the two titles, you lose your leverage. Why would you do that?”

More discussion on farm bill talks

Vilsack emphasized the need for a new bill. “If the farm bill isn’t done by September, and if Congress is allowed to extend the current bill, you will be rewarding the failure of Congress. The current farm bill does nothing for livestock producers, it does not reform the commodity programs. It is hard to explain direct payments to folks outside of agriculture when farm prices are at record highs. There’s no help in the current bill for organic producers, and that’s a way to help young farmers get into the system. There is nothing for veterans, or conservation. There is nothing for establishing a research foundation for public research, or an energy title to support renewable energy for the economy. The differences between the Senate and House are relatively small and could be worked out fairly easily by reasonable people.”

Vilsack reminded the audience that Congress had pledged to get a new farm bill written after the November election, and then said it would happen in the first six months of the year. “When I said that we couldn’t fund meat inspectors, Congress found the resources to do it. We can’t reward failure. You deserve a Congress that understands who farmers are, and what you do to contribute to this country and the economy.”

He also pointed out that criticism of SNAP program is undeserved. “Ninety-two percent of those who receive SNAP are women, children, the disabled, and senior citizens,” he said. “There’s roughly about 1% fraud, with a mistake rate of about 3.5%. In the crop insurance program, there’s a 9% rate of fraud and error.”

Vilsack added that farmers were not the only ones who needed a safety net. “SNAP recipients buy food at grocery stores within 30 days of receiving benefits. A significant percentage of them live in rural towns. Some of the people who receive SNAP benefits are military families, with a parent serving overseas. Are you going to tell them we can’t afford to help? Sure, we can make the SNAP program better. We also can use job training and educational funding at the state level to make sure these people get job opportunities.

“There is a lack of appreciation of the value of strategic alliances that extend agriculture’s advocacy,” he concluded. “When you are less than one-tenth of 1% of the population, you have to have alliances with others to make sure the other 99% remain engaged.”

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