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Vilsack adds voice for farm bill

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday that the American people are tired of hearing excuses from Congress about its lack of action on the nation’s problems and called for speedy passage of a farm bill this year.

Speaking at the Commodity Classic in Nashville, Vilsack got an enthusiastic response when he repeated support for biofuels and offered new ideas for helping beginning farmers.

In a year when the USDA is celebrating its 150th anniversary, Vilsack likes to compare the track record of Congress in 1862. It didn’t just create a new department, it supported a transcontinental railroad, passed the Homestead Act and established the Land Grant University System.

“This was all done in the middle of a civil war,” he reminded members of the American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association and National Sorghum Producers.

“That’s what America does. We don’t make excuses, we solve problems,” he said to applause.

Vilsack later told reporters that he’s more optimistic now than he was earlier this year that the agriculture committees will finish a farm bill this year.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has announced earlier hearings on the farm bill, including a March 14 session on the commodity title and crop insurance. And House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas this week announced a series of field hearings on the farm bill.

Vilsack said he respects Lucas and noted that in the House, the ag committee can’t write farm legislation until it gets numbers from the Budget Committee. Last year it proposed $48 billion in cuts, Vilsack said.

“I think the agriculture committees are bipartisan and they can get the work done,” Vilsack said. He’s less certain about whether the leadership in Congress will support passage of a farm bill.

Unlike the Bush Administration, which produced a detailed farm bill draft of its own, the Obama Administration has not. It has, however outlined its own goals when Vilsack testifies in Congress and as he talks with farm groups.

In his speech to the Commodity Classic, Vilsack outlined his goals:

  • A strong safety net for farmers, which would include a sound crop insurance program. (Vilsack later told reporters than cuts proposed February in the Administration’s 2013 budget would still leave the industry making about 12% return on investment.)

  • A strong conservation program. Vilsack said he favors a streamlined conservation title in the Farm Bill that would be more efficient and offer farmers more flexibility.  Vilsack also used the Commodity Classic forum to announce a new conservation initiative under the current farm bill that would enroll up to 1 million acres in several programs to conserve grasslands and wetlands. It includes a larger, $150-an-acre signing incentive payment for the continuous Conservation Reserve Program. That’s an increase from $100 an acre.

  • Continued support for expanding exports of U.S. crops.

  • Increased spending on agricultural research.

  • Doing more to help beginning farmers get started, including making crop insurance more responsive to their needs And Vilsack also supports changes in tax policies, including possibly reducing capital gains taxes for land sold by living farmers to their sons and daughters.

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