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Vilsack fills calendar

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joked with reporters Friday that, now that a farm bill has been passed, he feels "like the dog that caught the bus."

A complex new law that affects agriculture and resources in every state is challenging USDA, but Vilsack told farmers at the Commodity Classic in San Antonio Friday that programs renewed under the farm bill will be carried out this year, that commodity title regulations for new safety net programs will be published late this year, and that temporary help will be hired to help Farm Service Agency offices.

"It's going to be a busy year at USDA, but we are happy to have this opportunity," he told producers. "Trust me, I would rather be talking about this than the need for a farm bill."

Vilsack had a lot to talk about. He couldn't describe all of the farm bill programs in one speech. He could share some key dates for farmers and ranchers:

April 15. That's when farmers and ranchers with livestock losses can apply for disaster payments restored by the new farm bill.

May 17. That's when farmers who have already applied for cost sharing through EQIP, the environmental quality incentives program, to let them know if they've been approved.

June 1. USDA will notify those who've applied for CSP, the conservation stewardship program, to let them know if they've been approved.

Even though rules for the new ARC (agriculture risk coverage) and PLC (price loss coverage) program won't be out until this fall at the earliest, USDA will soon dispense some $3 million authorized for farm bill training. That money will go to land grant universities and cooperative Extension to develop education programs and computer-based decision-making tools.

"We expect to do that in the summer and fall of this year," he said.

When Vilsack met with reporters later, he reminded them that if farmers are owed any payments through either ARC or PLC, they won't be paid until 2015. The farm bill is written so that payments are due for spring-planted crops shortly after the end of the marketing year in the fall of 2015, for 2014 -- if prices or revenues are low enough to trigger payments.

Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, who was also at the press conference, told that actual sign-up for for the programs isn't likely before next year.

Delays in rolling out those programs might give some producers a better idea of which would pay more, in the short run. (Since that decision to take ARC or PLC applies for all five years of the farm bill, it's virtually impossible to know whether ARC or PLC will look better in 2018.)

When a reporter asked Vilsack if a delayed farm commodity program rollout might cost USDA more than expected, Vilsack said he's more concerned about operating those programs well.

"From my perspective, we ought not to be managing a program because we're fearful it's going to cost money. We know it's going to cost money," he said.

Because wheat farmers will have a chance to buy the Supplemental Coverage Option before they certify their acres next November, USDA will give them a one-time chance to drop the SCO, Vilsack and Harden said. That would happen before farmers have a chance to sign up for either ARC or PLC. You have to be enrolled in PLC in order to buy the SCO and if you choose ARC, you can't buy the SCO. This would allow wheat farmers to enroll in ARC later.

Vilsack also made it clear that he's going to do all he can to help biofuels. He told his Commodity Classic audience that USDA will use the farm bill's trade promotion programs to grow biofuel exports. The U.S. will be focusing on three big potential markets for biofuel exports: Japan, China, and India.

"We think the world is ready for American biofuels," Vilsack said, drawing a round of applause.

He later told reporters that he's encouraging EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to consider that the U.S. is likely to use more gasoline than expected due to an improving economy. That would create more room for ethanol in the nations' fuel supply, making it easier for EPA to justify changing a proposed blending mandate the agency released last fall that would slow growth in biofuels use by about 3 billion gallons this year, compared to the original goals written in the 2007 energy law.

Vilsack said he's not just repeating all of the arguments EPA is already getting from ethanol supports in thousands of comments submitted to support a higher mandate through the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Vilsack said he'll also look for ways that USDA can help expand the infrastructure for selling higher blends of ethanol in the U.S. Congress has prevented USDA from using one program, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which before the law was changed, was used to help pay for blender pumps.

"We'll just be creative about using other rural development programs until Congress closes that door," Vilsack said.

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