USDA says it is working quickly to roll out provisions under the new farm bill.
Rancher and farmers who suffered losses due to disasters from 2012 through this year should assemble their paperwork now, in advance of USDA’s self-imposed April 15 deadline for issuing guidance for receiving assistance.
That was the message Agriculture Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden delivered at an event to kick off this year’s National Agriculture Day festivities. "We’re going to make this as efficient as possible," said Harden, who is in charge of USDA’s rollout of farm bill provisions. But, she added, there may still be a lag after April 15 before producers receive checks.
The $1 billion in aid authorized by this year’s farm bill reimburses farmers and ranchers for lost livestock and provides money for feed purchases. Harden encouraged livestock producers to bring their records to one of USDA’s field offices. She said her staff talks daily with producers who were "hurt so desperately" by the drought and run-up in feed prices and were working without a safety net. The farm bill reauthorizes disaster relief programs that hadn’t been operational since 2011.
USDA has prioritized its work to roll out farm bill provisions. It will start with items that require guidance rather than rulemaking. "Any provision or change that’s crop-year sensitive, we want to make sure that’s done as quickly as possible," said Harden, adding that the department also doesn’t want to leave any 2014 budget dollars on the table.
One of USDA’s major early efforts will be to educate farmers about difficult choices under the law, some of which last the life of the farm bill. The law provides $3 million for training materials and web-based tools to help farmers make decisions. USDA expects to release those funds shortly and have the tools available this summer.
Harden said she is very excited about the law’s new conservation programs. The farm bill establishes the new Ag Land Easement Program. USDA wants to begin accepting applications around May 1, notify applicants in July and make obligations in late summer.
Harden, who grew up on a farm in southwest Georgia, is likewise enthusiastic about new programs for young and beginning farmers. "We need to make sure we have a bench in farming," she said, noting that a non-family member in his 60s runs her family’s farm. The family’s succession plan is not clear.
The farm bill makes it easier for beginning farmers and ranchers to gain access to crop insurance and use it. It also reduces interest rates on farm ownership loans from around 5% to about 2.5%, a change that USDA has pledged to institute very quickly. The department also hopes to eliminate limits on guaranteed loans this spring or summer. And it plans to improve and upgrade its popular microloan program by year-end.
Harden wants to move quickly to establish the new Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research authorized by the law. She will solicit nominations for board members soon, and expects the board to be established by early summer. The law contains $200 million in seed money for the Foundation. "It’s a way for us to leverage federal dollars with private dollars," she said.
USDA plans to allow farmers during the summer and fall to update their production history. It hopes to finalize regulations for the new Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) in the fall. After that, farmers will be allowed to update their yield information and reallocate their business, so that they will be able to make their decisions by late 2014 or early 2015.
Meanwhile, USDA is working to price its supplemental insurance coverage with actuarial data. It’s looking on a county basis at whether an adequate number of farms grow a commodity, and whether enough historical data exists. The department hopes by the summer and fall of 2015 to publish maps for most counties for corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, cotton and rice.
Wheat producers might have to make elections before they have all the information. But they will be able, prior to the coverage deadline, to opt out of supplemental coverage without incurring premium payments.
USDA expects by year-end to propose a definition of what constitutes "actively engaged" for the purpose of collecting crop insurance payments. This will be done through a proposed rule for comment.