OMAHA (DTN) -- On Thursday, United States senators quizzed two Midwest nominees for key USDA posts about whether they support crop insurance, if they agreed to expand the conservation reserve program, where they stand on proposed federal budget cuts, and on other issues.
Though the members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry seemed to find no reasons to oppose Greg Ibach and Bill Northey, both nominees appeared to provide enough of the right answers during a confirmation hearing in Washington, D.C.
Ibach was nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, and Northey for undersecretary for farm production and conservation.
Ibach would oversee the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration. Northey would be in charge of three agencies: the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, asked Northey if he supports the federal crop insurance program. Northey responded, "yes."
"Crop insurance is the most important part of the safety net," Northey told the committee. "While the safety net has worked for producers, I'm aware it has not worked for every producer."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, asked Northey if he was open to expanding the crop insurance program to include other commodities. He again answered, "yes."
"In my home state of Michigan, we have more crop diversity than any other state except California," Stabenow said. "Historically, farm bills have been focused on commodities. All farmers deserve a safety net, which is why I have fought to expand access to tools like crop insurance for specialty crop growers and dairy farmers."
When Ibach and Northey were asked if they would stand against proposed budget cuts to USDA, their answers were not as direct.
The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies advanced a bill in July to fund fiscal year 2018 USDA discretionary programs and other agencies at just more than $20 billion. That would represent a cut of about $1.1 billion from last year's bill, or about 5.2% less than current funding levels.
The president's proposed spending cut for USDA was about $4.8 billion to discretionary programs.
"I'm very concerned not to be put in a position to have cuts," Stabenow said.
Ibach said his agencies would "do the best job with the resources Congress commits."
Northey said he will "work with the committee to stretch the budget and to have needed resources as well."
CONSERVATION RESERVE PROGRAM
Acreage in the conservation reserve program is capped at 24 million acres, at a time when more producers find CRP payments appealing in the current commodity price environment.
Northey, the current secretary of agriculture in Iowa, said his state has faced challenges with the cap.
When questioned by Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota about the possibilities of expanding the acreage, Northey hedged on his answer.
"We are at a time right now when producers have a lot of financial challenges," Northey said.
"Certainly conservation is an important component of the farm bill. I'm very interested in being able to provide information if confirmed."
Hoeven responded, "I'm not sure that's an answer."
Northey said he's, "not close enough to be part of the conversation on this. In Iowa we hit caps as well. I recognize the constraints on caps and dollars available."
Hoeven said he is hearing from producers that they want an expansion of CRP acres.
During his tenure as Iowa agriculture secretary, Northey was part of launching a voluntary nutrients reduction strategy. The plan was heavily criticized by environmental groups as not enough to address the state's nutrients pollution. During his tenure the number of acres planted to cover crops has expanded from about 100,000 to 600,000.
"The voluntary nature of the programs is what engages producers," he said, noting that conservation should be a key part of the next farm bill.
Stabenow said hopes Northey will continue to emphasize conservation partnerships at USDA.
"I represent the Great Lakes state," she said.
"No matter where you are in Michigan, you're never more than six miles away from a body of water. I know you personally understand that agriculture needs to be part of the solution in addressing water quality issues. If confirmed for this role, I urge you to continue to prioritize the protection of our land and water."
Ibach's agencies are tasked with a number of issues from food safety to combating disease and pests.
"If we aren't able to keep diseases and pests out of the United States," he told the committee, "we put ranches and farms at great risk."
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Thursday that both nominees will bring credibility to USDA.
"These two nominees will bring experience and integrity to USDA the moment they walk in the door," Perdue said.
"Greg Ibach's work as Nebraska's director of agriculture has prepared him to address the needs of American agriculture, particularly regarding the cattle industry. Bill Northey, the Iowa secretary of agriculture, will give us a fourth-generation corn and soybean farmer who knows the issues facing producers across the nation."
Prior to the hearing, senators from both Nebraska and Iowa introduced the nominees.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Northey "appreciates the ins and outs of farming and what it's like to put your life savings on the line every year to grow a crop in rural America that will feed and fuel the world."
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, said Ibach, who grew up on his family's Sumner, Nebraska, farm "laid a strong foundation for Greg to serve his fellow agriculture producers. He understands the unique challenges our farmers and ranchers face because he is completely immersed in the industry."
Growth Energy Chief Executive Officer Emily Skor said Northey is a good pick because he "has first-hand knowledge and experience on how the integration of biofuels into both domestic and international fuel markets has positively impacted the farming economy in America."
Todd Neeley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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