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Vilsack outlines leaner farm bill
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Monday outlined a leaner 2012 version of what he calls a “Food, farm and jobs bill” that he expects to pass the Senate by early summer and defended his department’s closing of some Farm Service Agency offices, which are part of tighter budgets already imposed on the USDA.
Vilsack acknowledged that it’s popular for farmers in coffee shops to voice the need for smaller government.
“It’s a tough time, there are consequences to these decisions,” Vilsack told members of North American Agricultural Journalists who are meeting in Washington, DC. Closing some offices will not hurt services to farmers as much as another alternative, laying off more USDA staff, he said.
Vilsack also shared details of a fire in USDA’s main office building that delayed the release of some National Agricultural Statistics Service reports from Monday until Tuesday.
A small fire in one wing of the main building caused smoke that triggered fire sprinklers. One malfunctioned, damaging computer servers.
“My hope is that we’re back online this afternoon,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack praised the work of Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and ranking member, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS).
“It’s clear the Senate Agriculture Committee is serious its work and will begin this month” to mark up its version of legislation that authorizes USDA programs for the next five years.
Vilsack expects the full Senate to vote on the bill in late spring or early summer. And it’s possible to have legislation approved by Congress before the current law expires in September, he said.
Vilsack said that would be preferable to extending the current law because some programs have already expired or will run out this year.
“We have a disaster program that went out of existence on September 30 of last year,” he said, leaving USDA with no way to respond to any disasters from this growing season.
Vilsack said he expects the new farm legislation to continue federal support for crop insurance and offer some type of safety net program to supplement crop insurance revenue.
In response to a question from Agriculture.com, Vilsack said that he expects some of the energy programs that expire with the current farm law to be partially restored in the Senate bill.
“My hope is that we’ll continue to see a commitment to the REAP program,” he said. The Rural Energy for America Program offers grants and loans to farmers for on-farm renewable energy generation and energy efficiency. USDA has also used REAP funds to help pay for the installation of blender pumps that can dispense higher levels of ethanol than the typical 10% blends at gas stations.
“I think there is still interest in BCAP, but it will probably be structured a little bit differently,” he said.
The biomass crop assistance program helps pay for the establishment of energy crops and use of corn stover in cellulosic ethanol production
Another program to help support new biorefineries may not be renewed, he said, but with more flexibility in the law, USDA could assist new industries through its rural development program, Vilsack said.
“If we’re given that flexibility it won’t make any difference,” Vilsack said.
The conservation title of the Senate farm bill draft will likely simplify conservation programs and allow the USDA more flexibility in tailoring those programs to local needs, and to targeting areas with the biggest conservation needs.
Vilsack would like to see that approach to the rest of the farm bill.
“Make us work hard but give us the flexibility and the capacity to be creative,” he said.