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Farmers need 5-year farm bill now, Vilsack says

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 08/15/2013 12:42 PM

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AMES, Iowa —It was deja vu for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack last week at the Iowa Farm Bureau's Economic Summit.

Vilsack stood in the same place a year ago with the same message — Congress needs to pass a five-year farm bill.

"This notion of splitting the food programs from the farm programs, please do not believe that is in the long term best interest of producers, because it is not," Vilsack said.

There are 33,000 U.S. farming operations that produce 50 percent of the country's agricultural output, and 200,000 to 300,000 produce about 85 percent.

"That's less than one-tenth of one percent of the population, and the 33,000 is one-tenth of one-tenth of one percent," Vilsack said.

The other 99.9 percent aren't farmers.

"They don't understand what you do, and they have a hard time even appreciating what you do," Vilsack said. "When they send members to Congress, they may send people who may not understand the importance of having a safety net, or why crop insurance is important not just for producers but for rural communities. You have to help them understand that it's not just a farm bill, but a foods bill and a jobs bill that will affect their constituents."

Vilsack pleaded with farmers not to succumb to pressure to extend existing programs.

"If you do, you'll reward failure," Vilsack said. "I suspect in your operation, you never reward failure. Why would you do that in Congress?"

An extension won't provide disaster assistance to livestock and dairy producers.

No federal assistance is available for specialty crop and organic producers, a fast growing segment of agriculture. There are no opportunities in the House bill for beginning farmers or veterans, but the farm bill passed by the Senate has incentives for both.

"The only time folks in Congress have done anything in the past few years is when there's a crisis," Vilsack said. "We got an extension last year because folks understood that without an extension, milk prices would go up. They pledged they'd get it done after the election. They didn't get it done, and they haven't got it done the first six months of this year."

When Vilsack announced that due to the sequester there wouldn't be money for meat inspectors, Congress found the resources. When folks complained about long lines at airports, Congress found the money to fund the FAA.

People need to understand that the legislation is far more than a farm bill, Vilsack said.

"It is a jobs, research, innovation, conservation, energy, entrepreneur bill, and we have to do a better job of explaining that this farm bill is not just about the 33,000 operations the produce 50 percent of agricultural commodities, it's about every single American," Vilsack said.

He told the farmers they are the greatest generation of farmers in history.

"You deserve a Congress that understands what you do, that we are a strong secure nation because we can feed ourselves," Vilsack said.

Vilsack said the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is part of the farm safety net.

"If people can buy more at the grocery store, they will," Vilsack said. "A significant percentage of people who receive SNAP live in rural small towns and that money is spent at local grocery stores. It creates additional market opportunities for producers, with 15.8 cents of every dollar spent in the grocery going to producers. When you say you're for cutting SNAP by $20 billion, you're saying that you're for cutting farming by $3 billion."

The Senate is prepared to begin the conference process, but House leadership has indicated that it won't go to conference committee until it does something on a nutrition bill, and there is no suggestion of when that will happen, Vilsack said.

"It seems to me that the conference process could begin now, but if the House sends a message that they're just not ready to conference, it raises a concern that what has happened up to this point is not going to lead to a farm bill," Vilsack said. "I think the time has run out to get it done by Sept. 30. There are only so many legislative days left, and they've got an awfully lot of work left to do."