A Learning Process

February 7, 2011 10:19 AM
A Learning Process

The process of developing rules and regulations for farm programs isn’t glamorous. Sometimes, neither is the process of delivering those programs to farmers. But these are critical responsibilities of USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA). Its experience with programs such as Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) and Supplemental Revenue Assistance Payments (SURE) will yield valuable information for Congress when it gets down to writing the next version of U.S. farm law.

In the case of SURE, the agency learned that the program didn’t provide the intended benefits for some producers, said FSA Administrator Jonathan Coppess in a recent interview with Farm Journal.

"The struggle is always going to be with the large diversity we have in this country with agriculture from coast to coast, and the variations we have in weather—the different disasters that can strike at different times of the year," he explained. "When I talk to farmers, [I remind them] that these are ‘perfecting’ processes, not perfect processes. To get a perfect policy is impossible, particularly when you try to tailor it across the country with all the different issues, crops and growing seasons."

These problems are what contributed to the Barack Obama administration providing additional disaster help to some producers late in 2010.

"The crop insurance program and SURE have a big interaction right now," Coppess added. "We’re learning as we go." However, FSA will be able to provide Congress with feedback on "some of the specific things we’re seeing and hearing on the ground. It’s a continual process."

Fine-tuning. Implementating the ACRE program has also presented challenges for FSA, but, Coppess said, what the agency learned will likely make for a better program in the future—maybe one that changes how the revenue trigger is measured. Under current rules, a revenue decline must be triggered at both the state and farm level in order for payment to be generated. Some have suggested moving the state trigger back to a county-level trigger.

"Certainly we have read the different discussions and write-ups of whether you [should] look at a county-level target that must be met," Coppess stated. "Obviously, the closer it is to an actual farm or an actual loss, the more of a safety-net aspect you’re going to have. There are budget concerns and other issues about how you do that."

Coppess said that FSA has received a lot of farm-level feedback on ACRE. "ACRE was pretty complex," he said. "There was a lot of homework. You had to talk to your banker, your landlord, you had to run the calculator and go through it."

He acknowledged that market volatility is a factor to look at. "Does [ACRE’s two-year average] help to smooth out some of that up and down, or does it follow it?" he asked.

One of the most popular programs that FSA operates is the venerable Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). USDA held a general sign-up this past fall and, with more than 4 million acres set to mature in September, another sign-up is in the cards.

"[USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s] goal is clear," Coppess stated. "This is an important program, we have a 32 mil-lion acre cap, and let’s do our best to stay as close to that cap as we can and utilize the full extent of the program."

Looking to the next farm bill, Coppess predicted that FSA’s experience will reap benefits.

"Another year or two of going through these programs and we’re going to have a lot more information to share and an understanding of how they work and what the issues are," he said.

As lawmakers sit down to write the next farm bill, this on-the-ground experience could prove invaluable for shaping ACRE, SURE and other farm programs for years to come.

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