The right person leading the Farm Bill forward

Mary Kay Thatcher_AFBF_speaking to Ohio Farm Bureau Co. Presidents (2)_webOhio Farm Bureau County Presidents kicked off their annual trip to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, March 4 hearing from both Mary Kay Thatcher, Sr. Director of Congressional Relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden.

Harden is THE person moving the Farm Bill forward and in Mary Kay Thatcher’s mind, Harden is definitely the right person in that role.

“She comes from a farm, she’s spent a lot of time here in Washington on the Hill working for the Soybean Association (ASA), heading up the Conservation Districts (NACD) and she’s spent time as Chief of Staff for the Secretary, so she’s got it from all angles,” Thatcher said. “She’s got agriculture’s interest at heart and she’s the perfect person to implement this Farm Bill.”

Audio: Mary Kay Thatcher, American Farm Bureau Federation (3:10 mp3)

 

Moving the Farm Bill forward

USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden speaking to Ohio Farm Bureau Co. Presidents (2)_webUSDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden spoke to a delegation of Ohio Farm Bureau County Presidents on Tuesday, March 4 where she outlined the steps to move the Farm Bill forward.

The Deputy Secretary said that as the process of implementing the new Farm Bill begins, the first challenge is managing expectations.

“It took a long time to get this bill and folks are ready for it and they need it,” said Harden. “So I think that’s the first challenge about just being realistic about just what goes in to implementing a Farm Bill, making sure it’s done carefully and right, in a timely manner.”

Included in the Farm Bill is a provision for producer education and because of the complexity of the bill the Deputy Secretary tells Brownfield USDA hopes to begin producer education in the near future.

So what keeps the Deputy Secretary awake at night?

“Knowing that we’ve got to do it right so farmers can make informed decisions,” Harden said. “They’re going to be making decisions on PLC or ARC for the life of the Farm Bill, so we want to make sure they have the right information in a timely way, so they can make a good decision for their operation.”

Audio: USDA Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden (2:30 mp3)

Sign-up in farm programs could be a while

Congressman Bob Gibbs R-OH_webOhio 7th District Congressman and House Ag Committee member Bob Gibbs says because of the complexity of the new Farm Bill it may be sometime this summer before farmers can actually sign-up for programs.

“I guess maybe a good thing is, since it’s going to be awhile before they can go in and sign-up they’re going to have plenty of time to study what the program is, because it is very complicated,” Congressman Gibbs said.

Participating on a panel discussion of the Farm Bill at House Speaker John Boehner’s Farm Forum on Saturday, March 1 the Congressman also said that in addition to its complexity, it has the potential of being a very expensive bill.

“This bill does expose taxpayers to a lot of liabilities,” said Gibbs. “If this were to happen, if we would have price pressure in the next few years and there’s a big hit to the budget, in five years when we start the next Farm Bill that will be an issue.”

Audio: Congressman Bob Gibbs (R-OH) (3:00 mp3)

Congressman Boehner holds Farm Forum

Speaker Boehner at his 2014 Farm Forum (1)_web8th District Congressman and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) held his 23rd annual Farm Forum on Saturday, March 1. The focus of the day-long program was the new Farm Bill.

“A very timely subject to help everyone in our District understand what’s going on in agriculture and what’s going on in the new Farm Bill,” the Speaker said. “It’s not perfect, but I think they did a very nice job of coming to an agreement on the Farm Bill.”

When asked if it was important for farmers to continue to communicate with him, the Speaker told reporters he knows they’ll certainly hear about those aspects of the Farm Bill that aren’t working as intended.

“Maybe it was the way it was written, maybe because of the way it was implemented, I’ll guarantee you over the balance of this year we’ll be hearing about issues in the Farm Bill,” said Boehner. “And then we have to work to get those issues addressed.”

Larry Seibel of Preble County shared with Brownfield what he was taking away from the Farm Forum’s panel discussion on the Farm Bill.

“The biggest takeaway, it sounds like we’re trying to streamline the bill a little bit and we’re trying to do things that will protect the farmer without just flat-out giving him a paycheck, mainly through insurance,” Seibel said. “I think that is the correct way to go to support us.”

Audio: Larry Seibel, Preble Co. Ohio (2:05 mp3)

Nebraskan enjoys slower pace at Classic

As the immediate past chairman of the American Soybean Association, Steve Wellman’s list of responsibilities at this year’s Commodity Classic is much shorter than in years past.  We visited with the Syracuse, Nebraska farmer about what he’s doing at this year’s convention that he hasn’t had the opportunity to do in the past.  We also asked Wellman what kind of changes he’s making in his farming operation for 2014.

AUDIO: Steve Wellman (5:05 MP3)

Sorghum producers tackle issues

lust-tim-nspCommodity Classic involves corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum producers.  One of the first meetings on Wednesday morning was the National Sorghum Producers (NSP) board of directors meeting.  Before the meeting started, we visited with Tim Lust, executive director of NSP about some of the topics on their agenda, including implementation of the farm bill, efforts to increase sorghum acres, and how the sorghum producers feel about GMOs.

AUDIO: Tim Lust (5:56 MP3)

A visit with USDA-NRCS chief Jason Weller

At the National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health in Omaha we visited with the chief of USDA-NRCS, Jason Weller, about the new farm bill, conservation compliance and his agency’s role in promoting the use of cover crops.

AUDIO: Jason Weller (4:02 MP3)

Drought and blizzard aid on fast track

Livestock disaster aid is on the fast track now that the new farm bill is in place and USDA Under Secretary Michael Scuse says that will help farmers in the midst and the aftermath of extreme weather.

He says, “(The drought) is putting a terrible strain on the resources for the livestock producers in California and the dairies that are in California as well, so what we’re doing through the Livestock Forage Program is to help provide assistance and make up for the loss in the food supply that they’ve had for the livestock out there. We’ll be providing assistance for up to five months for those losses.”

South Dakota and Nebraska livestock producers who suffered losses in the Atlas blizzard of last October will soon be able to apply for the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP), Scuse says, “The losses were tens of thousands of animals. The Farm Bill and the Livestock Indemnity Program will cover 75% of the losses of those livestock.”

Scuse says there will be information coming soon about the appropriate documentation farmers will need to bring into their local Farm Service Agency Offices to apply for the livestock aid which will be retroactive to October 2011.  The expected date when farmers and ranchers may begin to apply for the assistance is April 15, 2014.

~USDA

USDA expedites livestock program implementation

The USDA says it is expediting implementation of the livestock disaster assistance program. The agency says producers will be able to sign up for the program beginning April 15th.

Producers will be able to sign up for the livestock disaster programs for losses not only for 2014 but for losses they experienced in 2012 and 2013.

The 100-million dollar program was reauthorized in the recently passed farm bill.

South Dakota Senator John Thune praised the USDA announcement. “This is good news for the livestock producers who suffered back to back grazing and livestock death losses in 2012 and 2013,” said Thune. “Once signup begins for these livestock disaster programs, USDA needs to also expedite the application approval and payments processes as well so these livestock producers can receive the financial assistance they desperately need as quickly as possible.”

Implementing the Farm Bill will be a challenge

Commentary.

The pain in the rear that has been the evolving Farm Bill for three years didn’t end when President Obama signed the bill at Michigan State University (MSU) last week, which for those not in the know is Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow’s (D, MI) alma mater and the first U.S. land grant university. The lingering, dull ache overcome with that act may actually pale in comparison to sharp pain which may emanate from USDA’s implementation of the 2014 omnibus farm law.

In rereading that paragraph, it sounds as if I’m prejudging, i.e. unsure of, USDA’s ability to get the new programs up and running. Let me say up front, this is not the assumption. The true program experts within USDA are the career folks; they’ve survived other administrations, implemented a fair share of farm bills, so fingers crossed the Administration pays attention to these in-house experts.

What I’m concerned about is the sheer volume of work to implement the new Farm Bill given the massive rewrites of crop, dairy, crop insurance and various other key programs, particularly given some pretty tight deadlines the department faces. And it’s not just the volume of work USDA must accomplish in a relatively narrow time frame, but the fact it must achieve all this under the eagle eye of the industry it regulates, as well as the backseat driving of Congress.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack did the first smart thing, beginning virtual implementation of the Farm Bill – in all its variations – some months ago. His second smart act was to put Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden – experienced and wicked smart – in charge of wrangling the department’s implementation working groups. Vilsack will take these collective good works and package them for White House sign-off. His third smart move was to “lend” the White House Domestic Policy Council several key USDA regulators and administrators to ensure the White House folks actually understand what they’re supposed to be approving.

As said, time is not on USDA’s side. The heaviest lift will be getting the two insurance-based income support programs that replace direct payments developed and in place by spring planting time, which for southern producers is just a few weeks away. The department must also factor in cross-compliance with crop insurance and conservation program participation.

The unfinished payment limitation section of the bill will be the true test of USDA’s political and program savvy. While the rewritten limits on how much an individual or couple may receive in federal payments are tucked into the new Farm Bill, the key to how this section operates is the phrase “actively engaged.” A producer or farm couple must demonstrate active engagement in the farm’s operation to qualify for any payments, and in past Farm Bill’s this definition was always fairly loose. Farm Bill conferees, however, couldn’t agree on how to tighten this definition, so they punted the rewrite to USDA. I don’t envy the poor soul charged with coming up with the words that will make Sen. Chuck Grassley (R, IA), the avenging spirit of payment limitations, and the crop and general farm groups happy.

The old menu of dairy support programs disappears and in its place will emerge the new dairy margin insurance program. The deadline for this transformation is September. However, to get from point A to point B, a new insurance product must be developed; base production acres for every individual producer in the new program must be calculated or updated, and the circumstances under which USDA will – “on the very rare occasion” – step in to buy surplus production need to be invented.

And while previous iterations of livestock disaster assistance programs existed in the 2008 Farm Bill, changes by lawmakers to these programs in the 2014 bill may interfere with achieving “expedited” implementation of these disaster assistance programs as requested this week by 24 Senators. Vilsack, following the law, told one publication this week the assistance programs in question, due to the rewrites, require USDA restudy to determine if new rules are needed to implement the programs.

Which brings us to the biggest procedural hurdle facing the department and “quick” Farm Bill implementation: The pesky Administrative Procedures Act (APA). It’s the APA that mandates rulemakings and other federal actions be published in the Federal Register in order to collect much needed public comment, among other things.

Nearly all of the new authorities mentioned above will take extensive rulemaking. At the very least this means 30 days of public comment on every single rule developed, and in some cases this could mean comment periods of 30 days for a notice to the affected parties the government intends to write a rule; 30-45 days for a proposed rule, 45-60 days for a proposed final rule, and in rare cases, as much as 60-90 days on the final rule. Consider this – at this writing, one rule implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act at FDA has been in the “notice/comment” phase for 11 months.