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Vilsack finds changing farm programs in mid-stream may be a tough sell

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is trying to sell commodity groups on the idea of replacing traditional farm programs with so-called green payments or carbon credits. The groups aren't buying it.

The hook Vilsack is using is the $1 trillion deficit the federal government may incur due to the massive stimulus package and other rescue bills that have been enacted or discussed in Washington.

He cited the need to reduce spending in speeches outlining his vision for USDA at the USA Rice Federation Government Affairs Conference, a joint meeting of the National Association of Wheat Growers and U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Cotton Council's annual meeting.

“I think maintaining the safety net is important, but the reality is you can't sustain trillion-dollar deficits out into the future,” Vilsack told National Cotton Council members at their annual meeting in Washington. “The challenge will be for us to find new ways in which we can continue to support production agriculture.”

Many didn't like what they heard. They disagreed with his claim — which he repeated during a question and answer session and to reporters following the NCC meeting — that Congress must revamp farm programs because of the deficit.

“I find it incredible the secretary believes cuts in commodity programs — as small a percentage of the federal budget as they are — are going to be responsible for helping offset the trillion-dollar debt,” said one, who added green payments would be “like a doctor giving a man with prostate cancer intravenous saline.”

Another said those payments, which environmentalists have been recommending the last two farm bills, or a system of trading carbon credits, which Vilsack mentioned, could take years to develop and still not provide adequate support.

Vilsack also was criticized for saying (to the NCC) that direct payments would be eliminated when Congress does a budget reconciliation in April. (One congressional staffer said Congress may not pass a budget resolution this year and a budget reconciliation bill is probably out of the question.)

Speaking to the NAWG, Vilsack said direct payments initially were supposed to transition growers away from government payments, but have “taken on a life of their own. If direct payments have a limited future, I suggest you think about using climate change to take care of this.”

Payments would be easier to explain to the man on the street if they were being received for helping the climate. Noting tension in the farm community over direct payments, he said farmers need to come together “or they will pick you apart.”

While Vilsack may be new in his position, his thoughts on redirecting farm payments are not. When he was representing farmers in Iowa in the 1980s, he told the wheat growers, he realized farmers needed more income options. “I want to put all the options on the table and come up with the best one.”

Growers want the best option, too, but they may have to be sold with better arguments than what they're hearing so far.

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