U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack says the USDA’s top priority regarding the farm bill is getting it through. He tells Brownfield there are a lot of things about the Senate Farm Bill now up for debate that the USDA likes. With more than 220 amendments, Vilsack tells Brownfield, that’s good news and bad news. He says, “Some of these amendments have no relevance whatsoever to food, farm or jobs and, hopefully, they’ll sort that through and get it done it short order.”
Vilsack says, there’s a positive side to all these amendments, “When that many amendments are filed it suggests that this is something that policymakers believe is actually going to happen. So little has happened in Congress this year that when they something actually moving that they believe has a chance is getting done they look for their pet amendment to be attached to it.”
Vilsack’s biggest concerns with a final farm bill, “I think the big stumbling block will be the size of the reductions and where the reductions are taken. I think it’s fair to say that the administration has very deep concerns about deep Draconian cuts to nutrition programs.”
Vilsack says rather than coming out with a list of priority recommendations, the USDA has been and is continuing to work very closely with Senate and House agriculture committee leaders on the next farm bill.
Vilasack says there’s a lot in the Senate Farm bill – now in front of the full Senate – that they really like — the end of direct payments being replaced by a strong crop insurance program and revenue protection effort, the strong conservation component with more flexibility and fewer programs, the trade portion of the bill and support for local and regional food systems. Vilsack tells Brownfield there is an area of the bill that still needs some work.
“The research title still needs a little work but we’re excited about the prospects of being able to leverage ag research. We know that every dollar we invest in research has a $20 return on investment and so it’s important that we continue to support ag research.”
Vilsacks says the biggest concerns are the size of the cuts and where they will be taken, especially wary about deep cuts to nutrition programs in the Farm Bill.
Vilsack says he’s very hopeful the bill will get through before September 30th – when the current farm bill runs out – and he praises the leadership for their dedication to doing that, adding that they are a good example of how Congress should operate.
On Wednesday, Senators defeated an amendment to allow block granting for states to take over administration of the SNAP food stamp program which Vilsack says is not a good idea. Vilsack tells Brownfield the program is being run fairly well at the federal level..
“The error rate is at less than 3-and-a-half percent, it’s an historic low,” he tells Brownfield Ag News, “The fraud rate net program is less than one-percent, an historic low. We’re going to focus on administering this program as best we can but block-granting to the states would not be efficient and I don’t think – it would not be an improvement, that’s for sure.”
The Senate also voted 50 to 46 in to kill an amendment that would have effectively phased out the sugar support program. Vilsack says the sugar amendment got its fair hearing.
The American Sugar Alliance – which represents cane and sugar beet growers – says the sugar program operates with no expense to U.S. taxpayers and the amendment’s defeat is “great news for taxpayers, grocery shoppers as well as the country’s food security.”