Vilsack, USDA panel, Snyder speak to ag journalists

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, four USDA officials and the agriculture adviser to the Environmental Protection Agency spoke to the North American Agricultural Journalists last Monday at their annual Washington meeting.

The USDA officials appearing together were Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Robert Bonnie, Farm Service Agency Administrator Zach Ducheneaux, Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Terry Cosby and Risk Management Agency Administrator Marcia Bunger.

Answering questions earlier in the day was Rod Snyder, agriculture adviser to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan

Speaking from North Carolina in a Zoom session, Vilsack stressed the importance of hiring at USDA, the same point he made when he testified before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee later in the week.

Vilsack noted that USDA has continued to process farm loan applications, execute conservation contracts, make home loans, purchase billions of pounds of food for school meals programs and food banks and help thousands of businesses and communities with rural development loans. But he said there has been a 43% decline in employees conducting “back room operations,” and that while the Rural Development mission area has personnel in every state, these offices are “short handed.”

During their appearance, Ducheneaux, Cosby and Bunger all reacted to concerns about staffing levels at their agencies. Ducheneaux and Cosby both said they are trying to fill positions.

Bunger noted that RMA is fully staffed with only 400 employees. But she noted that crop insurance products are delivered through the private sector, with between 13,000 to 15,000 people working for crop insurance companies and as agents.

Reacting to a statement by Kathleen Merrigan, an agriculture deputy secretary in the Obama administration that she fears organics do not have a seat at the table in the development of the Biden administration’s climate-smart partnerships proposal, Bonnie said that organic producers do have input and “there is a lot they can bring to the table.”

Reacting to fears that products labeled as climate-smart might compete with the organic seal, Bonnie said there are no plans for a climate-smart label.

Snyder told the agricultural journalists that EPA wants to finalize the Waters of the United States rule “this calendar year.” He noted that EPA is analyzing the 120,000 comments it received on the rule.

When Snyder was appointed in October, it was announced that he would lead outreach and engagement efforts with the agricultural community for EPA, “working to advance the Biden-Harris environmental agenda for farmers and rural communities.”


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