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Vilsack sees farm bill finish line

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack compared the years-long farm bill process to his experiences running a marathon. In the race's 26.2-mile distance, "that last two-tenths of a mile can be the most difficult," he told in an interview Thursday.

The farm bill seems to be nearing the finish, but "there are a few critical issues left, and I think it does require folks to compromise," he said.

One of those difficult issues is the bill's inclusion of a strict payment limit of $250,000 per farm couple for commodity programs. It would allow just one off-farm investor in a farm to claim to be "actively engaged" to receive a payment. That loophole has allowed multiple partners in large farms in some Southern states to avoid previous limits in farm bills, according to a government accountability office (GAO) study requested by Senator Chuck Grassley, the reform's most vocal proponent. Strong payment limits have the support of majorities in both the House and Senate, but not on the House Agriculture Committee. Grassley has said that three of the four House and Senate ag committee leaders have been trying to convince Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow that the payment limit provision in the farm bill should be weakened.

Vilsack said Thursday that he has talked to Senate Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Grassley, and others about the payment limit issue.

"As they deal with this, they have to recognize that agriculture is different in different parts of the country," Vilsack said, adding that what works for corn and soybean farms in the Midwest may not work for cotton farms in the South.

Vilsack said that when Grassley criticizes current practices under payments, the Iowa senator "has a solid point that this has resulted in some people qualifying that are not actively engaged in agriculture."

Vilsack said that one way to resolve the issue might be through USDA's rule making. "I don't think you see a solution that is written into law," he said. Vilsack said he hasn't seen a bill yet, and that he's basing that likelihood "on what has happened in the past."

Vilsack said he doesn't know how soon the negotiations over a farm bill will end, that it could be days.

"By the middle part of February, my hope is there's something on the president's desk that he can sign," he said.

Vilsack said that he already has USDA's Office of General Counsel, its budget office, and others getting ready to put a new law into effect quickly after it is passed, and that he's not preparing to implement permanent law unless it becomes apparent that the farm bill won't pass.

Vilsack was asked whether or not EPA might extend the comment period for its proposed renewable fuel standard for 2014, which was the subject of a hearing organized by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad Thursday.

Vilsack said he doesn't know, since he doesn't have direct responsibility for EPA.

"They've received thousands of comments, and I know they will take those comments very seriously," he told

"I'm focused on the things I can control," he said. Vilsack was a strong supporter of ethanol when he served as governor of Iowa as well. And as Agriculture Secretary, he has used funds from the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) to help finance blender pumps in rural service stations. That is, until Congress barred spending REAP funds for blender pumps, "which is reflective of the kind of support Big Oil has in Congress," Vilsack said.

That program would have helped build the retailing infrastructure needed to get around the so-called blend wall of selling only 10% ethanol, one of the reasons EPA has proposed lowering the RFS for 2014.

Vilsack said that USDA will look for other ways to support biofuel expansion.

"We have other rural development programs that could potentially be used," he said. Those programs could help convenience stores to put in more pumps for higher blends like E85 or E15, or blender pumps that allow several levels of ethanol. But to do that, USDA needs a willing partner and oil companies have, instead, been trying to restrict access to such products, he said.

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