Tom Vilsack.
Tom Vilsack.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Wednesday he is pleased with the number of grain farmers signing up for the new five-year federal farm bill's main crop supports, but final results will not be available for another month.

"They are still signing up," Vilsack told Reuters in an interview. "We are trying to finish these appointments and paperwork by the middle of May."

Vilsack twice extended the deadline for farmer sign-ups on the farm bill's two main new market-based programs for grain supports that replaced the old legislation's direct payments.

Grain farmers have had to choose between two options, a price-average formula called Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) or a fixed-price formula, Price Loss Coverage (PLC). Farmers have to commit for the full five years of the farm bill.

The final deadline for getting paperwork in was April 7, though latecomers are still being accepted if they made appointments with their local USDA office before the deadline, Vilsack said.

"A producer could elect PLC on one farm and ARC on another," Vilsack said. "What you may see is a breakdown not by producers but more on commodities."

University economists who have been teaching farmers about the complicated new programs have said ARC is a big favorite among corn and soybean farmers while PLC was likely to be more popular with crops like wheat, sorghum, barley, rice and peanuts.

Vilsack declined to estimate any enrollment ratios for ARC or PLC for any crops. But he said that he did not expect the budget projections to be out of line over the life of the farm bill, even if, say, ARC is popular among crop farmers. ARC allows farmers to cash in on high grain prices over the last five years, which could balloon payments in the first year or two of the programs.

"Over the length of the farm bill there is still an expectation that there is going to be a savings. And some prices have rebounded a bit," Vilsack said. "I'm keeping my eye on beef prices and I think those will ultimately come down as we replenish, expand the supply. Poultry I'm concerned about, not because of the farm bill but because we have avian influenza and it affects our ability to export."