ANKENY, Iowa—Lawmakers working on the next Farm Bill need to find an effective way to provide aid to farmers affected by natural disasters, increase funding for agricultural research and continue important conservation programs, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.
The former Iowa governor spoke to about 100 workers who make farm equipment at a John Deere plant in Ankeny, telling them programs funded through the massive spending bill also must be streamlined and simpler to understand.
The current $284 billion bill, approved in 2008, expires in September 2012. Roughly three-fourths of the money goes to food nutrition programs, such as food stamps and school lunches, but it also provides subsidies for commodity crops, like corn and wheat, and funding for agricultural research, rural development and energy, among other things.
Perhaps the most controversial items funded by the bill are direct payments, which are subsidies paid to growers of certain crops regardless of crop prices and yields. Many lawmakers and some farmers support scrapping direct payments in favor of better crop insurance, which would kick in when prices drop or crops are damaged.
Southern farmers, however, remain strong supporters of direct payments, saying existing crop insurance programs don't help much with the crops they grow.
Vilsack said farm aid is crucial, but it must involve some kind of accountability.
"We have a responsibility to the American people to use their resources wisely and to provide assistance only when it's needed," he said.
But, he also said aid needs to be provided more quickly when disasters happen and aid programs should be simple and easier to understand.
This has been a major year for agricultural disasters. Texas has suffered a record $5.2 billion in livestock and crop losses since last fall because of drought. Meanwhile, Midwest farmers lost crops to river flooding, and those in the East were swamped by Tropical Storm Irene.
"A bad crop ruined by a natural disaster or an unpredictable price collapse can put a hard working farm family out of business quickly," Vilsack said. "These families rely on a strong safety net."
And, aid has to be provided in a way that works for all farmers.
"It can't favor the planting of one crop over another," Vilsack said. "It needs to work for row crop farmers in Iowa and specialty crop farmers in upstate New York and cattle ranchers in Texas."
The agriculture secretary also said the next Farm Bill must include more money for agricultural research because public funding has been stagnant since the 1990s.
"If we continue to flat-line our commitment to research, our productivity will likely suffer," Vilsack said. "This at a time when our productivity will have to increase to meet the global demand for food."
The issue also is important to the U.S. economy. He said farm exports are expected to reach a record $137 billion this year for an export surplus of $42 billion, with 1 million jobs added.
Vilsack, who spoke a week after a massive dust storm struck the Texas Panhandle, also said conservation should be another priority in the new Farm Bill. Dust storms happen when wind picks up dry, loose soil.
Vilsack said farmers have voluntarily enrolled a record number of acres in conservation programs and "clearly, we cannot afford to let up" in that effort.
There has been discussion about Congress scaling back the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays them not to plow up and farm land. Vilsack called on Congress to continue its commitment to improving conservation programs with more flexibility and a simpler, more streamlined application process.
"In the last 30 years, producers have reduced soil erosion by 40 percent and agriculture has become the leading cause of restoring wetlands," he said.