via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.
Vilsack shows he and USDA will be very active
-- in controversial areas
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following are highlights of a press conference given Monday by USDA Secretary
Tom Vilsack. I have provided some of my comments where appropriate.
-- Payment caps; actively engaged:
Vilsack said USDA would reconsider revising the pay cap
and actively engaged rules for 2010 forward by taking additional public
comments for another 60 days. Just seven comments have been received so
far. This gives the department 60 additional days to seek feedback and
figure out the best way to “limit and reduce the number of times
that payments are going to people that aren’t eligible,” Vilsack
said, adding that he would be especially interested in ideas that would
help USDA “target the payments to farmers who really need the payments.”
He emphasized that 2009 crop payments would not be affected -- "In
no way is this move a signal that we will modify the rules for the 2009
crop year," Vilsack said. “I realize that sign-up has begun
and it’s important for farmers, ranchers, and bankers to have clear
and consistent rules in place so that producers can prepare for the crop
year and manage their risks appropriately. However I want to pursue an
extended comment period so that we can review the extent and purpose of
the rule for future crop years.”
Reaction to the announcement was mixed, with some
lawmakers and farm groups expressing concern about possible major changes
ahead in the controversial areas. Others, like Sens. Chuck Grassley
(R-Iowa) and Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), were pleased about the new USDA
review. Grassley said the existing rules continue a weak definition
of what it means to be actively engaged in farming. Grassley has repeatedly
said the prior USDA rules should have included specific time requirements
for farm program payment recipients to show they are actively engaged
in a farming operation. Grassley and Dorgan wrote Vilsack on Jan. 13
that the new rule "left open a glaring loophole that allows individuals
to qualify as eligible payment recipients through vague and ambiguous
criteria of management."
Senate Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa)
said the change would “allow adequate time for everyone interested
in the program to weigh in and provide suggestions that would help target
payments and ensure payments are going to those producers for whom they
My comments: We will
see how much of an activist Vilsack will be when he has to confront
southern lawmakers and better yet, cotton and rice producers about this
-- Fruits and vegetables and MCOOL: Vilsack
said he had also reversed a Bush administration cut in the Specialty Crop
Block Grant Program that would have taken $3.2 million to use those funds
to enforce mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL). "It is clear
from what President Obama has indicated to me, that he wants this department
to promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables,
and so we are withdrawing that rescission so that those resources can
be made available,” Vilsack said.
Background: The original decision was made by former
Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, who told congressional leaders he
planned to transfer $3.2 million from the block grant program to pay
for education activities and enforcement responsibilities of MCOOL.
My Comments: The unanswered
question is where the education and enforcement money will come from.
Reaction: Robert Guenther, senior vice president
of public policy at United Fresh Produce Association, said in a release
that he is pleased that Vilsack chose to reverse the original decision,
saying it “would have been bad public policy all the way around.”
Any MCOOL changes ahead? While Vilsack did not detail
what, if any, changes the Obama administration would make to the Bush
administration rule for implementation of MCOOL, he said, "I want
to state very clearly that I strongly support COOL."
Meanwhile, Vilsack pledged strong enforcement of existing laws
administered by USDA, including the Packers and Stockyards Act.
-- On food issues, Vilsack
said USDA “has an incredible opportunity to combat childhood obesity
and to enhance health and nutrition.”
My comments: I anxiously
await who will hold some of the USDA sub-Cabinet positions, including
in the food and nutrition area. We will get an activist official or
-- Ethanol plants: Vilsack
said USDA will help struggling ethanol facilities identify the most efficient
ways to produce the alternative fuel, so more plants can stay in business.
USDA should research, develop and promote "best practices" to
improve efficiency at corn-based ethanol plants, which have been hit hard
by volatile corn prices, followed by a sharp drop in demand for the biofuel,
which is more expensive than gasoline, Vilsack said.
"We need to make sure that the biofuels industry has
the necessary support to survive the recent downturn, while
at the same time promoting policies that will speed up the development
of second- and third-generation feedstocks for those biofuels that have
the potential to significantly improve America’s energy security
and independence,” Vilsack said. He noted that the 2008 Farm Bill
included $400 million in tax credits for ethanol producers and resources
for new production facilities and to revamp existing ones.
Vilsack said USDA will work very quickly to implement new
programs in the farm bill to pay farmers to raise energy crops
and to help existing ethanol plants move toward using cellulosic feedstocks
as well as corn.
My comments: Advice to
Vilsack: let the market work. Several ethanol plants are currently up
for sale, and better managers and those with far better marketing skills
will likely buy them and those are the best ingredients for efficiency
-- Ethanol blends: Vilsack
did not provide any new information regarding the push by some to boost
the current 10 percent maximum for the amount of ethanol that can be blended
with regular unleaded gasoline (for non flex fuel vehicles), which is
controlled by the Environmental Protection Agency, not USDA. The current
10 percent limit is seen by the industry as a "blend wall" that's
preventing greater use of ethanol in the fuel supply. Vilsack said it
is important for USDA to have a good working relationship and good communications
My comments: Some sources
say there is a last-minute push by some ethanol producers and corn growers
to put some ethanol blending language in the Senate's economic stimulus
package, which is being marked up today by the Senate Finance Committee.
-- Rural Internet access: Vilsack
said he wants USDA to be a supporter of 21st Century rural communities
and said he would lend his support to a proposal to expand broadband Internet
access in rural areas. “The capacity of folks in rural communities
to have access to the Internet cannot be under-appreciated or underestimated,”
Vilsack said. “You can’t open yourself up to world markets,
to new opportunities, unless you have access to that tool.”
My Comments: Don't just
talk about it, do it. Too often this topic has been long on hope and
woefully short of funding.
Vilsack said beyond the expansion of broadband Internet, the department
will look at the expansion of modern infrastructure, energy-efficient
housing and expanded small business opportunities to promote a more
vibrant rural America.
-- Climate change: Vilsack
said one of his top priorities for USDA is to become a national leader
in mitigating global climate change through conservation, energy efficiency
and expanding opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy.
USDA will also conduct research on how farmers can participate
in carbon trading and sequestration programs, Vilsack said.
He added that USDA's work in carbon sequestration will also involve
its Forest Service and efforts to manage forests to reduce wildfires.
"Right now with uncontrolled wildfires we're actually contributing
greenhouse gases rather than reducing them," he said.
-- Ethics: Vilsack
said he has met with ethics officers to ensure he and members of his incoming
team understood the existing ethics rules and rules that will be in place
with President Obama’s administration. “The president has
clearly established how important it is that we adhere to high ethical
standards, and that we make it a priority to reshape government to make
sure that the people of this country are served, and not the special interests,”
-- How many people actually work at USDA?
In an interesting development, Vilsack said he cannot find out how many
thousands of employees he has at USDA. "They could tell me how many
checks are issued, but not how many people work here," he said. "It
was the first question I asked the transition staff when the president
nominated me for this position. I was interested to know how many people
actually work at USDA," Vilsack said. "And I was told that no
one knows for sure."
Vilsack said the department's computer system is so outdated
they are not sure how many full- and part-time employees are on the
payroll. "That together with a number of reports from
the Inspector General's office and the (General Accountability Office)
concerning the operations and management suggested that what we have
here in some aspects and areas is charitably outdated," Vilsack
My comments: Several
decades ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter was walking the
hallways at USDA and noticed a lot of people talking, reading books,
etc., and she began asking what work they did at USDA. Some of the answers
were not what a lot of people wanted to hear. That set off hearings
and a USDA "task force" to identify its people and define
what they did or were supposed to do.
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