Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said USDA will have a busy year in 2014 as the agency begins to create rules and implement the Agriculture Act of 2014 with a diminished staff.
“But it is good to talk about passage of a farm bill than to talk about the need to pass a farm bill,” the secretary said during his keynote address to the general session at the Commodity Classic Friday morning in San Antonio, Texas.
Vilsack said the new farm law is “a good solid bill,” but its complexity demands a lot of attention and time to evaluate so farmers have information they need to make the best decisions.
He also said some temporary workers will be added to FSA staffs to help implement the law. “We will be able to bolster the staff on a temporary basis,” he said. “But these will not be permanent jobs.”
He said some re-design of FSA offices remain to be done to improve efficiency and take advantage of technology.
Vilsack also said the USDA will, by the end of the year, provide clarity to the definition of “actively engaged,” as directed by Congress. He said the actively engaged limits in the new law are “restrictive. We will comply with the restrictions,” he said.
He also noted that USDA will be engaged in making certain the programs that carried over from previous farm law and from which farmers and ranchers expect payments will be available. “Payments due will be made,” he said. That includes livestock producers who have been without assistance for the last two years.
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The new programs will require significant attention as USDA works to create the rules or guidelines through within the program will be implemented. “Farmers and ranchers will need information so they can make good decisions,” he said.
The Agricultural Risk Coverage and the Price Loss Coverage options are distinctly different and farmers will need to evaluate each carefully, Vilsack said, since once a program is elected it’s in play for five years. He said wheat farmers may be at some disadvantage since the final rules are not likely to be available until fall 2014. But they will have an opportunity to re-evaluate and select another program if they had to sign up before final rules were available and then find another program was best. Vilsack said they can switch within a defined period without penalty.
USDA goals with the new program include maintaining viability of large, commercial farm and ranch operations, he said. “We also want to expand and maintain mid-size operations and offer new income opportunities. And we will assist smaller operations and beginning farmers and ranchers, including returning veterans who want to reconnect with the land.” Improved insurance and credit opportunities will be available to beginning farmers through the new farm law.
He said the Supplemental Coverage Option and the cotton STAX program also need to be evaluated. STAX will be in place for 2015 with a transition payment available for the 214 crop.
“For SCO, we need to develop enough data to have accurate price options. We are beginning to look at information from an adequate number of farms to determine counties covered. We should have maps by summer or fall 2015 to show where SCO coverage is available.”
He said generating adequate data is essential for farmers since they cannot choose both SCO and ARC.
Vilsack said the new farm law provides funding for agricultural research that has been lacking in recent years. He also pledged continued support for the biofuels industry and said it is an important factor in rural economies for continued strength of grain prices, for national energy self-sufficiency and as a matter of national security.
He said USDA will continue to support biofuels regardless of what EPA decides on proposed reductions in the Renewable Fuels Standard.
The secretary also noted that Congress included education funds to help inform farmers abut options in the farm program. Those funds will go to land grant institutions to develop educational materials.
Record conservation program enrollment will also test the new streamlined conservation titles in the new farm law.
He said export promotions will expand and will now include a focus on biofuel export with key targets in Japan, India and China. “The world is ready for American bio-fuels,” he said.
Vilsack said the new farm act is complex and different from previous programs and will offer USDA challenges as they develop rules to implement the program. “We will keep it as simple as possible,” he said. “We will determine if we need a rule or if guidance will work. If we need a rule, we have to send it to the office of management and budget.” If guidance is acceptable, it’s much simpler matter.
Regardless of the challenge, he said this is what agriculture wanted. “We prefer this to talking about needing to pass a farm bill.”