“Less Government” in the Next Farm Bill


WASHINGTON (DTN) — With the era of reduced budgets challenging agencies such as USDA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the need for the next farm bill to provide more flexibility in making cuts and spending funds.

“People sit around the coffee shops in rural areas … they sit around the table and say, ‘You know what? We need less government.’ OK, do you know what that looks like? … The reality is when your budget is reduced to a point it’s going to affect your capacity to be everywhere for everyone. That doesn’t mean you still can’t provide the service and at the end of the day we think it’s going to be stronger service.”

The agriculture secretary added, “I’ve been trying to stress to members of Congress and to everybody, it’s a new day.”

Vilsack spoke Monday to members of the North American Agricultural Journalists meeting in Washington, D.C. He stressed that the farm bill legislation is not simply the farm bill, but the “food, farm and jobs bill.”

“The key is flexibility and I think you are going to see that,” Vilsack said. “If there is less money, then don’t give as many programs, simplify them, and give us flexibility. Allow us to be creative.”

The Senate Agriculture Committee could begin voting on language for a farm bill as early as next week. Senators are working under the premise USDA would face $23 billion in program cuts over 10 years, though House GOP leaders are wanting broader overall federal cuts, including more from USDA’s programs for farmers and food-aid recipients.

In the past, when USDA officials made decisions to close offices, a phone call from a senator would more often than not keep an office open. “Those days are over. That’s not available. We’re beginning to ratchet down on everything we are doing,” Vilsack said.

At a hearing last month with the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., went into great detail to criticize USDA’s 10 proposed office closings in his state. Some offices, for instance, were 21 to 23 miles apart by road from another office when USDA is prevented from closing offices farther than 20 miles apart.

“This is a tough time,” Vilsack said Monday. “It requires tough, hard decisions.”

Office closures are a better option than furloughs or laying off more people at USDA, which has already offered early retirement to staff.

“These are hard decisions, but it allows us to avoid more difficult or disruptive decisions,” Vilsack said.

Noting the budget plan offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Vilsack said the cuts to programs and offices could become broader. Vilsack said the Ryan plan calls for $29 billion in cuts to commodity programs over 10 years, as well as $16 billion in unspecified cuts and more than $120 billion in cuts to food-aid programs over 10 years.

With food-aid sales adding roughly 16{fd15d42d1b024b97d6d50958be27cc8145b6addb99e015780abccf2984117bb0} to net farm income, that equates to roughly $20 billion in lost net income to farmers over 10 years, Vilsack said.

“There are consequences to these decisions,” Vilsack said. “People need to understand that, and we need to work with that.”

Regardless of the final dollar figure on cuts to the USDA over the next decade, Vilsack said USDA leaders will need flexibility to carry out programs as best as possible.

As difficult as it is with the budget, Vilsack said there are more potential possibilities for leveraging dollars if the USDA is given the ability to do so.

“The problem with this whole process is it’s all program oriented instead of results oriented,” Vilsack said.

With 41 different programs in rural development and 20 programs in conservation, it’s easier for an agriculture secretary to tout the program rather than ensure there is a solution.

“There’s less money, everybody knows it. It’s a question of how much less, but whatever it is, give us the flexibility to use whatever resources you do give us, and [let us know] what the expectations are.”

Regarding Congress’ work on the “food, farm and jobs bill,” Vilsack said the legislation provides a chance to better educate the public about the effect agriculture has on the country as a whole. About 85{fd15d42d1b024b97d6d50958be27cc8145b6addb99e015780abccf2984117bb0} of all food consumed in the U.S. is grown domestically.

“It’s underappreciated for the food security it provides this country,” Vilsack said. “We see countless examples of countries where there is political instability because people are not well fed. People can’t get access to enough food. That’s not a problem in the United States, and it’s not a problem because we can produce virtually everything we need to feed ourselves.”


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Posted with DTN Permission by Haylie Shipp


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