Either Congress is going to pass a new farm bill in 2012 or it will have to vote for the 2008 farm bill to stay in effect, said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in answering questions before one of the largest gatherings of full-time farm broadcasters and agricultural magazine editors.
“This year is not going to end without some action. If they (Congress) cannot agree on a farm bill, what they’ll have to do is extend all or portions of the 2008 farm bill, but kicking the can down the road is not going to make it any easier,” Vilsack told reporters after his general comments to attendees of the Commodity Classic on Friday.
“I think the ag committees, the leadership of both committees, House and Senate, have stepped up. They are committed. I think they have ranking members who are working with them. I think the ag committees are bipartisan and they can get the work done. The question is whether or not their colleagues, who seem to have a hard time agreeing on things, will understand the importance of the farms, food and jobs bill,” Vilsack explained.
The biggest restriction to a farm bill being crafted is that there is no solid budget number to aim at hitting, the secretary said. The possible cuts in the budget vary widely.
“It is not going to get better, the numbers in the budget are going to be tough, and 2013 isn’t going to be any easier, and it’s probably going to be more difficult than 2012, especially if they cannot get their act together on these discretionary spending cuts and sequester comes into play,” Vilsack noted.
Funding conservation programs in a new farm bill seems to be on the table for possible cuts. “As a general philosophy that I like to operate under, I like to incent people,” the secretary said. He added that there is a need to talk about measurements and quantifying measurements so that the private sector is interested in investing in conservation.
“I think we need to figure out ways that we can make conservation so attractive to people that they are doing it because it is the right thing to do, and I think we can do that,” he said. “We are constantly looking for ways to make our programs more attractive. I think we will focus on providing technical assistance to producers so we have more hands for opportunities through NRCS.”
Budget dollars outside of the farm bill are also a concern about modern infrastructure. Limitation to the nation’s leadership in moving production inputs to growers and moving production into the export channel is a concern. Vilsack said he agrees that improvements in the nation’s infrastructure needs attention.
He suggested investment has to occur for improvements in ports, locks and dams, railroads, highways and airports. The U.S. had the best infrastructure in the world for many years, but it is losing that advantage because infrastructure leadership occurred from investments between 10 to 30 years ago.
“That advantage is gone. Our competitors’ ports are much more efficient, their canals and channels are much deeper, and so they have greater opportunity to get product to market much more quickly,” said Vilsack.
“I don’t necessarily think you have to privatize them to get resources into them, but we ought to be looking at creative financing opportunities,” he added.