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Vilsack seeks farm policy certainty

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who will serve as Agriculture Secretary in President Barack Obama's second term in office, got a warm welcome from American Farm Bureau president Bob Stallman Monday as the top administrator of a shrinking Agriculture Department sought to add a bit of certainty in a turbulent world.

Speaking at Farm Bureau's annual meeting, Vilsack, who was bitterly disappointed that Congress failed to pass a new five-year farm bill in 2012, offered clarity on one farm program. There has been confusion about how the extension of the 2008 law in the fiscal cliff legislation affects ACRE, or the Average Crop Revenue Election.

"We will provide an opportunity for people to opt in, or to opt out if they became disenchanted with the program," Vilsack said of ACRE.

"We're going to do what we have to do and what congress has directed us to do with the extension," Vilsack said.

Still, he said he's disappointed that the extension doesn't offer any disaster help for livestock producers hit by last year's drought, even as his Department has already declared more than 500 counties disaster areas this year as dry conditions persist in much of the country.

"We are committed, and I know Farm Bureau is committed to making sure 2013 is not a repeat of 2012. We need a farm bill and we need it now," Vilsack said, drawing a round of applause.

When Stallman introduced Vilsack to his group's members earlier, he said that Obama's decision to keep Vilsack on the job "is good news for farmers and ranchers and good news for rural America."

"I am glad we will have Tom Vilsack advocating for agriculture as the new congress comes in," said Stallman, who has praised Vilsack for being an advocate for farmers in the Obama Administration.

Speaking to reporters later, Vilsack said that he believes USDA will be able to make the direct payments that were continued by the 2008 farm law extension this fall.

But the money for those payments could disappear as Congress seeks ways to reduce the federal deficit over the next two months.

"What Congress giveth, they can taketh away," Vilsack said.

He said he doesn't believe crop insurance will be a target.

"I think the sentiment from Congress has been less inclined to look at crop insurance, recognizing that it is a linchpin" of the safety net programs for farmers.

Vilsack's own department faces spending cuts that aren't yet finalized a third of the way through the fiscal year, and if they take effect in the last six months, the cuts will be, in effect, about 16%, he said.

Vilsack has been telling agricultural interests that the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill is a sign of the declining influence of rural America.

Political leaders in Congress believed there would be no political repercussions for not passing a farm bill, he told reporters Tuesday.

To counter that, groups need to form even broader alliances, he told Farm Bureau members.

He praised Farm Bureau for helping to form the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance. But that's not enough, he said.

He encouraged farmers to work with Hispanics who want immigration reform. Farm Bureau and other ag groups already favor passage of at least a piece of immigration reform -- improved laws for a guest worker program.

He encouraged Farm Bureau to reach out to groups that may not always agree with it, even though he knows as a former governor and a small town attorney, how difficult that can be.

"I understand how difficult it is, to be the best in the world and not be appreciated for what you do," he told the farmers and ranchers gathered in Nashville. But they got a big thanks from Vilsack.  

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