SEATTLE — The Agriculture Department is hiring staff throughout the country in order to implement the 2018 farm bill on a set schedule, Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said here Sunday at the National Farmers Union convention.
Northey noted that about 21,000 people work nationwide in the three divisions within his mission area — the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service — but that those agencies have between 1,000 and 1,500 fewer people than three years ago.
“Our intention is to get back to where we were three years ago,” Northey said, noting that USDA has streamlined hiring procedures in order to bring people on quickly.
But he said that the agencies will never go back to the number of employees they had 10 or 15 years ago because Congress will not give the agencies the money to employ that many people.
Northey said the agencies under him will also improve the information and application processes available on agency websites, but that online services are “not a panacea and won’t replace people.”
In his speech Northey did not mention statements from the White House Office of Management and Budget that President Donald Trump in the next budget he sends to Congress will propose cutting the domestic agencies by 5 percent, or Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s statement that he fears the proposal to cut USDA will be higher than 5 percent.
In a short interview, Northey said he is not concerned that the president’s budget will affect his hiring plans, because Congress determines the budget and those workers are needed to implement the farm bill.
Northey said that the new Dairy Margin Protection program will be the first to be implemented because the dairy farmers are in the worst shape of any farm sector. Signup should be in mid June, with the first payments going out in July, he said.
Reimbursement for dairy insurance premiums paid minus indemnities between 2014 and 2017 will also be made, he said.
Changes to the Price Loss Coverage program will not take place until fall, Northey said.
Conservation Reserve Program signup will probably be in December.
There will be no crop insurance for hemp for 2019, he said, but USDA will attempt to make insurance available next year. The “challenge” is that USDA needs hemp production information before a crop insurance program can be developed, he said.
Until the 2018 farm bill passed, hemp had been classified as a drug and growing it was illegal for decades.
Farmers who sign up for whole farm insurance can list hemp as a crop grown on their farms, but it will not be covered under the policy, he added.
Northey, a former elected Iowa agriculture secretary, said he has visited more than 30 states since taking his position in the Trump administration a year ago, and that the challenge in implementing the farm bill is making sure each program works in each state.
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