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Vilsack Hedges on Farm Bill Sign-Up Extension

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA got high marks from farmers and members of the Senate Agriculture Committee Tuesday at an oversight hearing in Washington led by the new Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS).

However, according to one of the farmers the committee invited to testify about the farm bill, local Farm Service Agency administrators have concerns about a last-minute rush of landowners deciding on changes to base acres and yields by the deadline this Friday.

Roberts asked Vilsack if it’s still correct that USDA won’t extend the deadline and will rely instead on a registry at local offices. Using a registry allows anyone who shows up before the deadline to get on a list of appointments to return later to finish the paperwork.

“I think it’s incumbent on us to continue to monitor the situation,” said Vilsack, who is now getting daily reports on sign-up progress. He was monitoring sign-up progress weekly.

Vilsack said anyone using the registry would be considered to have met the deadline. He also said that anyone who makes base and yield decisions by the February 27 deadline would still be able to change their decision by March 31, which is the deadline for operators to choose between ARC and PLC (Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage.)

Later, committee member Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) told Vilsack that FSA staff in his state is concerned about being able to meet the deadline. He pressed Vilsack again about whether there would be an extension past sign-up deadlines.

“If there is the need for an extension, that’s something we’ve done in the past. I don’t want to commit to that today,” Visack said, citing the potential to encourage procrastination. 

Vilsack told committee members that owners of more than 900,000 farms had made a decision about changing crop bases and yields and more than 440,000 producers had chosen between ARC and PLC, which is about 26% to 27% of the number of elections between the two programs that USDA expects to be made.

Breaking with tradition, Roberts started the hearing with a panel of farmers, not Vilsack, to emphasize his committee’s advocacy for producers.

The farmers who testified praised FSA staff for being helpful and prepared.

Rich Felts, the president of Kansas Farm Bureau who raises wheat, corn, soybeans, and livestock near Liberty, Kansas, said he has been to his FSA office to make base and yield decisions but still hasn’t chosen between ARC and PLC.

“In doing this, I did procrastinate a little, like many,” Felts said.

He said the woman who runs his FSA office told him she hasn’t seen many landlords coming in. “Time is an issue,” Felts said. 

Clay Mitchell, a Buckingham, Iowa, corn and soybean producer, said that Extension, FSA, Farm Credit, and ag journalists had offered information on choosing between ARC and PLC. “They helped me determine that the ARC program was better suited to my farm than PLC,” he said. “My local FSA office in Tama County was organized and courteous. I hear a lot of older farmers say they wish their Social Security office could operate as efficiently as the FSA office.” 

Ronnie Lee, a Bronwood, Georgia, farmer who raises cotton, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, pecans, and cattle, said that the base and yield decision at his FSA office “was a lot easier than I thought it would be.”

For choosing farm programs, the FSA decision-making tools have been helpful, he said. “We may have to choose one program for one crop and another for another. We’re still trying to figure it out. That’s where we are.”

Before the hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) told reporters that he wasn’t certain that an extension of the farm program election would help producers much since they’ve had six months to sign up and to figure out the programs.

When asked if he had concerns about the farm bill, he replied, “not from how it’s being implemented. I think we ended up writing a little more complicated bill than we needed to.”

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