The Fence Post

Vilsack takes small farm message to Senate ag

By Jerry Hagstrom, The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the Senate Agriculture Committee today that the next farm bill should create more markets for small- and medium-sized farmers. When he got some pushback from Republicans defending big farms, Vilsack responded that if they want to discourage population losses in rural America they should help the smaller producers.

At a three-hour oversight hearing, Vilsack and Republican members also sparred over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, his use of the Commodity Credit Corporation (USDA’s line of credit at the Treasury), and the impact of the Biden administration’s trade and environmental policies.

In an opening statement, Vilsack repeated the point he has made in most of his recent speeches to farm groups: that even though the last two years have resulted in record farm net cash income, nearly 50% of farmers did not make money, while 40% made the majority of their income from off-farm jobs, leaving 10% to make most of the money.

“This is not a small versus large situation but 90% of our farmers need help,” Vilsack said.

In his opening statement, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. said, “While 89% of the farms in the U.S. are classified as small by USDA and contribute nearly 18% of farm production, there are 3.2% of farms, classified as large, that contribute 46.5% of our nation’s farm production.”

“All farms are valuable,” Boozman said. “This farm bill will not neglect the small nor punish the large.”

Vilsack said he acknowledges the importance of large, commercially successful farms, but he noted that Boozman had said “Based on the last census, 53 of the 75 counties in Arkansas have lost population. That is 71% of Arkansas counties. Across the United States, 53% of our counties, or 1660 out of 3140, lost population.”

“I am certain that all my colleagues on this committee are concerned about the hollowing-out of our states and our country and the impact that this will have on the future of America,” Boozman said.

“At the end of this farm bill process, I would like to go back to rural Arkansans and tell them that we have put policies and programs in place that will improve their quality of life and give their children and their neighbors’ children reasons to return home,” he said.

“In my mind, ensuring this country has a vibrant and economically sustainable agricultural economy is key to accomplishing that goal,” Boozman said.

“If we are truly concerned about the hollowing out … we have to figure out how to create more revenue streams for farmers,” Vilsack said, pointing to Biden administration programs that would create more market opportunities in areas such as carbon, meat processing and local and regional food sales.

Vilsack noted that he had brought with him a report written by Isaac Newton, the first U.S. agriculture commissioner, in 1863 that also said farm consolidation was already a concern.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., told Vilsack that while her state has only 3 million people, it has lots of land and small farms. But she added that the country can’t feed people on the production from small farms.

Hyde-Smith said that when she walks down the cereal and rice aisle at the grocery store, she thinks about “what would happen if we stopped production. We don’t want to become dependent on imports.”

She asked for assurance that he will follow congressional intent on farm programs.

“My concern is feeding the masses,” Hyde-Smith said.

“Our goal is to keep people on the farm,” Vilsack said, but he added, “I don’t think it is either or. We need both.

“The challenge, he said, how to help the big farmers but not forget about “the 90% who are struggling even in a record year.”

At the beginning of the question-and-answer period, Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D- Mich., asked Vilsack to affirm that the 2018 farm bill directive to USDA to re-evaluate the Thrifty Food Plan used to determine SNAP benefit levels did not say it was supposed to be revenue-neutral, even though some previous directives had included a budget-neutral provision.

Vilsack said the directive did not contain a budget neutral provision, but Boozman said he doesn’t think Vilsack’s argument “holds water” because the Congressional Budget Office scored the provision as budget-neutral, based on information from USDA.

The provision has added $300 billion to the cost of SNAP, Boozman noted.

Vilsack pointed out that the information provided to CBO came from USDA when Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue was in office during the Trump administration.

Vilsack said he was “not bound” by what Perdue said.

“We are not bound by you finding loopholes,” Boozman said.

“We are bound by the law and the directive of what we were supposed to do,” Vilsack responded, adding that before the rewrite, the Thrifty Food Plan assumed people would spend an hour and a half preparing a meal.

“When you are going to spend $300 billion you come to Congress,” Boozman said. “I am not saying it didn’t need to be updated, that we didn’t need to spend some money.”

Boozman also said he was “growing increasingly concerned about USDA’s ability to provide timely responses, however.”

“Just yesterday, I received a response to a letter I wrote to you in October, which was not entirely responsive,” Boozman said. “We really depend on USDA as we write this farm bill, because we need to understand how the policies we are considering would be implemented.”

Vilsack urged the senators to send specific requests rather than going on a “fishing expedition” in their requests.

“You don’t get to decide what is a fishing expedition. We simply aren’t getting the information,” Boozman said.

But the depth of the conflict between the secretary and the ranking member was measured. When Vilsack mentioned that USDA had responded to a problem in Arkansas, Boozman said, “You did a wonderful job.”

On implementation of the Growing Climate Solutions Act, Vilsack said USDA would provide a report to Congress by August, and is putting together the team to write that report.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she was concerned that grants for meat and poultry processing have gone to billionaires in states other than Iowa, but Vilsack noted that the plants that have received grants are not part of the “Big Four” packers that control most of meat and poultry processing.

Vilsack urged Ernst to be patient because he believes an Iowa project will be approved soon.

Several Republican senators criticized the Biden administration’s Waters of the United States rule, but Vilsack noted that Congress had written the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency has to administer it. The farmers want “certainty,” Vilsack said and the Biden administration is attempting to use both the Trump and Obama WOTUS rules to write a better one.

Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., suggested that perhaps Congress should write legislation requiring EPA to implement USDA’s advice, but Vilsack said he wonders how Congress could structure a bill telling a Cabinet agency to implement the advice of another Cabinet agency.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he hopes the next farm bill imposes stricter payment limitations, but Vilsack said doing that correctly would be difficult.

Grassley noted that when the Trump administration made big trade-related payments to farmers from the Commodity Credit Corporation, he did not raise questions about “the misuse of the CCC,” but that the farm bill still needs to deal with the secretary’s proper authority over it.

“It’s my belief that the USDA’s discretionary use of CCC undercuts this committee’s farm bill process,” Grassley said. “This farm bill will not be a success unless Congress takes back our responsibility of setting the nation’s farm programs.”

Vilsack said his use of the CCC is not “discretionary” because he has been following the rules on what the secretary is allowed to do.

He told Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., that the government is a long way from developing a vaccine for high-path avian influenza or dealing with the questions about whether other countries would accept meat from vaccinated poultry.

Asked by Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., about his views on ownership of American farmland by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran, Vilsack noted that collectively those countries own only 330,000 acres. Most foreign-owned farmland is in the hands of Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan, he said, asking if Braun and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who are writing a bill will restrict people from those countries too.

Vilsack had a testy exchange with Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., who said farmers who have experienced discrimination are becoming impatient about receiving payments.

Vilsack said he hopes to distribute the money this calendar year, but has yet to hire a coordinator for that distribution or get the word out to the farmers through intermediary groups that the Biden administration believes the farmers will find more trustworthy than USDA.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., asked Vilsack if he would maintain the sugar program, but Vilsack would say only “I understand the importance of the sugar program.”

Sens. Peter Welch, D-Vt., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., both asked questions on behalf of Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who is hospitalized.

Welch asked for Fetterman whether Congress should strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act, but Vilsack said he believes changes can be achieved through regulation.

Booker on Fetterman’s behalf asked about USDA’s efforts on urban agriculture, and Vilsack replied that USDA had identified 17 cities on which to focus on that program.

Vilsack noted that the Housing and Urban Development Department also has a community garden program.

Booker told Vilsack he had one piece of advice for working with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge: “Never bring her vegan food.”