Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack faced a lot of questions Wednesday before the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on farm-bill implementation. One theme that stuck out was the emphasis on various conservation programs by senators.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked Vilsack about the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. "This is probably one of the most understated policies in the 2014 farm bill. It has the potential really to transform the face and the future of agricultural stewardship," Stabenow said.
The partnerships are expected to leverage local and private money to broaden conservation efforts. Vilsack said USDA has started a series of listening sessions about the regional partnerships program. The department plans to identify the critical areas that would be eligible for the regional partnerships. Vilsack also said USDA wants to get the program launched in time to highlight the issues of bringing investment capital to rural America as part of the White House Rural Council.
"So we are going to get the framework of the program out as quickly as possible so people can respond," Vilsack said.
Stabenow also wanted an outline of how USDA was preparing to implement the conservation compliance provisions in the farm bill that relate to crop insurance.
"First of all, it's important to note this is effective the day the President signs the farm bill," Vilsack said. "So farmers are under this obligation and responsibility if they want to continue to receive the government subsidy for crop insurance, as of Feb. 7th of this year."
Vilsack said the basic structure of the rule would be released sometime this summer and give farmers and landowners
Most farmers already have a conservation plan if they are enrolled in a USDA commodity or conservation program. Vilsack said roughly 6,000 producers would be affected and they would have until mid-2015 to create their compliance plan to ensure they do not lose their subsidy for crop insurance.
"The advice is, it's probably not a good idea to be breaking up land that hasn't been broken up in a while and it's probably a good idea to get your conservation plan together if you are one of those 6,000 producers who hasn't had it before," Vilsack said.
The secretary later noted USDA is working with conservation groups to ensure people know the compliance and sodsaver provisions went into effect the day the farm bill was signed. That message will be "amplified and reinforced," Vilsack said.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., also said the regional partnerships program will be a big deal, particularly if USDA designates parts of the Colorado River as a critical conservation area. Bennet also suggested groups want parts of Ogallala aquifer to be considered a critical conservation area. Bennet noted western parts of the country "water-stretched regions of the country facing regulatory challenges."
Vilsack said the critical areas for the regional partnerships would be designated by the end of the month. The farm bill offered three tranches of money for the regional partnerships. There was $100 million specifically set aside in the farm bill, as well as 7% of EQIP and 7% of CSP acres. All told, that should be roughly $200 million that will be used for RCPP.
"The key also is to look at this from a larger conservation landscape scale size effort," Vilsack said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he wanted to make sure the language in the farm bill is implemented calling for regional equity in conservation programs. Too often, some states just receive minimum funding, he said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., encouraged Vilsack to implement conservation compliance "in a way that is farmer friendly and doesn't impose undue burdens or costs on our producers." Hoeven also wanted to ensure USDA implemented the Wetlands Mitigation Bank, which is a trading program regarding wetlands acres. Hoeven was opposed to tying compliance to crop insurance premiums and said the wetlands mitigation program is one way of offsetting some of the burdens farmers may face.
On the Conservation Reserve Program, Vilsack told Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., that he had not yet made a decision on whether there will be a general sign up for CRP this year. Continuous sign up will resume sometime this spring.
"The fact that we are going to see constrained acreage in CRP forces us to be very focused on how we use these acres most effectively," Vilsack said. "The continuous program gives us the ability to really focus on habitat, on pollinators, or whatever it might be, or on highly erodible lands."
Landowners are going to be given a chance to opt-out of CRP. Vilsack said he wants to see how that is going to affect the general sign-up. Those procedures on opting out of the program should come soon, he said.
Thune questioned a practice of baling and burning forage off CRP land as a mid-term management practice. He said it would be better if farmers could donate those bales to livestock producers. "Everyone wins if this occurs," Thune said and asked Vilsack to make changes in mid-term practices.
Vilsack said USDA had just recently sent out a memo to field staff on that issue. "I think you will see more flexibility and common-sense on this."
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