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Bonnie urges farmers to counter NYT video narrative

NEW ORLEANS — Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie told farmers gathered here last week at the Commodity Classic that they can use their conservation efforts to counter the narrative in a New York Times video editorial titled “Meet the People Getting Paid to Kill Our Planet.”

During a panel discussion, Bonnie told the corn, wheat, soybean and sorghum farmers that they should tell the story about agriculture and forestry.

“There is a counter narrative,” Bonnie said. “We need to put forward a better narrative that is based on fact and on science. We want to work with all of you to tell that narrative.”



Bonnie, who spoke, was accompanied by panelists Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, Risk Management Agency Administrator Marcia Bunger and Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Terry Cosby, who answered questions.

Bonnie stressed that USDA is getting more of its field office staff back in the office as soon as possible.



“We know how important it is to get people into field offices. We hear that a lot. We know how important that is,” he said.

He added that USDA also knows it is important to deliver disaster benefits and is trying to “ease that effort using existing data.”

Bonnie repeated previous statements that USDA is looking for ways to engage with farmers to scale up climate-smart practices based on voluntary incentives and “the best science we have.”

“If the tools we design don’t work for agriculture they won’t work for climate,” he said.

Some of the practices have been called “nutrient management,” he said.

USDA’s plans will not leave out those known as “early adopters,” he said. “We don’t want to make them step out of conservation so they can step back in. That would be dumb.”

Asked what role USDA will play in writing the next farm bill, Bonnie said, “Obviously the farm bill is written by Congress,” although “USDA provides technical data.” If USDA has “priorities we pursue we will do that working with people on the hill.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “wouldn’t want to say this is our farm bill,” he added.

Responding to a question from a North Dakota farmer who complained he has to go to multiple county offices to sign up for programs on the land he farms, Bonnie said he and Ducheneaux and Bunger are working on ways to make sign up easier.

Ducheneaux said USDA is “going to avoid triple reporting.” He noted that Bunger is a former FSA county director “who knows the problems,“ and Bunger added that her own husband, a farmer in South Dakota, gets frustrated about the reporting requirements.

But when asked why the National Agricultural Statistics Service does its own reporting, Ducheneaux said that NASS data is “privileged” and NASS cannot use FSA reports. “I understand there is a lot of redundancy but please fill out the forms,” Ducheneaux added.

UKRAINE WAR AND BEGINNING FARMERS

Asked whether concerns about global food security due to the war in Ukraine may encourage farmers to keep land in production rather than idle it in the Conservation Reserve Program, Ducheneaux said, “If producers take that option we are not going to hold that against them.”

In response to a question from a farmer from Minnesota who complained that the definition of a beginning farmer is “inflexible” and does not take into consideration years in college or military service, Ducheneaux said farmers will need to help with that definition on Capitol Hill when the next farm bill comes up.

Also responding to a question from a farmer about getting coverage on land that is double cropped, Bunger said that RMA is “a balancing act always” because the policies have to be “actuarily sound.”

But Bunger added she wants to see “what we can do about getting you some coverage,” and told farmers that when going into USDA offices, “Do not go in with your head down.”

A Wisconsin farmer said she needs new equipment to engage in some conservation and irrigation practices, but cannot afford it. To be more sustainable, NRCS practices need to be more flexible, she said.

Cosby, the NRCS administrator, said, there isn’t enough funding to meet all the requests.

He also noted that NRCS is actively hiring staff for its field offices and urged the farmers to tell people to apply to the agency “to get in that NRCS truck and walk the land.”

“Our No. 1 job is to be out on the land with the farmer writing conservation plans,” he said.

Ducheneaux said Vilsack had urged him to try to solve problems in response to feedback, noting that Vilsack told him, “I would rather see you make a mistake trying rather than not at all.”

Ducheneaux also repeated his email address and phone number that he has been distributing at other meetings and urged farmers to contact him directly at zach.ducheneaux@usda.gov or (202) 941-4675.


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