Vilsack focuses on poultry, CRP, infant formula announcements
At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing Thursday, May 26, at which he was the only witness, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack focused on USDA’s recent announcements on reform of the poultry tournament system, making it easier for farmers to exit Conservation Reserve Program contracts, and guidance to states on infant formula.
Meanwhile, members of the committee asked about whether the crop insurance system can be adjusted to address planting problems this spring and a myriad of issues important to their states.
Vilsack noted that USDA released a proposed rule to establish greater transparency in poultry growing contracts and the system of compensation known as “tournaments.”
National Farmers Union President Rob Larew said in a news release, “This rule will ensure poultry growers have a fair marketplace, free from retaliation. We will review the proposed rule and share further recommendations with USDA to help ensure the final rule provides the protections poultry growers deserve.”
But National Chicken Council President Mike Brown said, “This is a solution in search of a problem. The last thing the Biden administration should be doing is pushing increased regulations, red tape and costs onto businesses at a time of record inflation and input costs, threatening food security and potentially raising grocery bills even further for Americans.”
“There is a huge misunderstanding in this administration of how businesses operate. Everything this administration has touched has led to increased prices for consumers — whether its gas, home heating bills or infant formula. Chicken seems to be next.”
Vilsack also told the senators that USDA will allow Conservation Reserve Program participants who are in the final year of their contract to request voluntary termination following the end of the primary nesting season for fiscal year 2022. Participants approved for this one-time, voluntary termination will not have to repay rental payments, a flexibility implemented this year to help mitigate the global food supply challenges caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other factors.
Under questioning from senators, Vilsack also pointed out that the CRP, which idles land for conservation and wildlife benefits, has mostly land that is “not really that productive” but that if farmers choose to take their land out of CRP and put it back into production “we trust farmers to make decisions for their own operations.”
Vilsack also said that USDA’s contribution to address the baby formula shortage is to encourage state agencies and their formula manufacturers to consider seeking temporary flexibility in their contracts to allow participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children to purchase alternate sizes, forms, or brands of during the current shortage.
USDA said it is quickly leveraging the new Access to Baby Formula Act signed by President Biden and will cover the additional costs of alternate brand formulas in states that have contracts with Rickett Mead Johson or Gerber, if the contracted size, form, or brand of formula is unavailable.
In states with Abbott Nutrition contracts, Abbott is covering that cost difference, USDA noted.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said that he and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., had led a bipartisan, bicameral letter to Vilsack on Wednesday urging him to “provide support and certainty to producers facing disruptions in spring planting due to excess moisture.”
In the letter, the lawmakers made the case for Vilsack to offset any loss in the crop insurance guarantee for producers that are unable to get into the field until after the final planting date, citing the slow pace of planting nationwide and stressing the need to incentivize greater U.S. agriculture production to help address global food security needs.
“Importantly, payments should be made from sources other than the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) to maintain the actuarial soundness of crop insurance while shielding Approved Insurance Providers (AIPs) from any increased liability,” the letter said.
At the hearing, Hoeven said the money could come from the Commodity Credit Corporation.
Vilsack said he had not yet seen the letter and would consider their points but he noted that making changes to crop insurance, which is supposed to be actuarily sound, is complicated.
Vilsack also assured Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, that the administration’s commitment to conserve 30% of the land in the country by 2030 would respect private property rights and not restrict access for recreational hunting and fishing.
Of the many issues raised by senators about issues in their states, perhaps most notable was the request from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for help with a grain storage facility destroyed by a storm in December. Vilsack said he was working on the problem and that “pop up” storage facilities are being considered for this year.
All the interactions between Vilsack and the senators were cordial except for an exchange with Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., who said that the Biden administration’s policies, from high prices and supply chain issues to the solicitor general’s position favoring state labeling of glyphosate, mean the administration “isn’t building back better” for Kansas farmers.
Vilsack responded that Marshall should take into account the value of exports and the billions of dollars in aid that USDA has distributed.
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