Tom Vilsack quickly rattles off statistics about how the country’s agriculture industry has grown during the Obama administration’s first term.
For example, the biofuels industry, which converts agricultural products and wastes into renewable fuel, has created 400,000 jobs, the secretary of agriculture said.
The industry also is using agricultural waste to “produce chemicals or plastics or fabrics or fiber that can be used to produce other products,” Vilsack said during a recent telephone interview.
That leads to a bio-based economy “that is sustainable and less-reliant on fossil fuels, particularly those imported from other countries,” he said.
But Vilsack and other agriculture leaders are concerned that automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester, and lack of a new farm bill will stunt the country’s food producers and processors.
Unless Congress and President Barack Obama agree on a way to avert the automatic spending cuts on March 1, the USDA will have to cut each of its budget line items by 10 percent to achieve the required savings in the seven months remaining in the fiscal year, Vilsack said.
That means, for example, that the Farm Service Agency would make fewer farm loans, he said. And furloughs of agency workers could mean reduced service to farmers.
“But the one that we’re most concerned about is the impact on food inspection,” Vilsack said. The USDA employs about 6,000 meat, poultry and processed-egg inspectors to ensure the safety of the country’s food supply.
“If an inspector walks off the inspection line, that line has to stop,” he said. So the product can’t be processed to be sold in a grocery store, causing consumer shortages and higher prices.
A stop in production can lead to gluts and lower prices for farmers and food processors. “It creates great convulsions in the markets,” Vilsack said.
Yvonne Lesicko, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy at the Ohio Farm Bureau, is confident the USDA will do whatever it takes to keep the country’s food supply safe. Lack of a new farm bill is a bigger problem for her federation’s 214,000 members, Lesicko said.
The previous five-year farm law expired in September. Though some parts of it were extended, some USDA programs, such as a disaster program for livestock and dairy producers having a hard time paying high feed costs because of last year’s drought, have been suspended.
“More importantly, there’s no certainty about what the safety- net program is going to be,” Vilsack said. In bills proposed last year by the House and Senate agriculture committees, the traditional subsidy program of direct payments was replaced by an insurancelike safety net.
The Ohio Farm Bureau supports a safety-net approach rather than direct payment in the next farm bill, Lesicko said.
But there’s a chance that legislators might take some of the $27.5 billion earmarked for the direct-payment program and use it to cut the federal budget deficit.
And that could leave too little money in the system to create a new five-year farm bill, Vilsack said.
On top of the sequester and farm bill problems, the federal government’s continuing resolution expires onMarch 27. If the resolution is not extended, the government will have to shut down.
“I can tell you, this is a very stressful time for producers and for those of us who serve producers,” Vilsack said.
By Mary Vanac - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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