Vilsack’s comments on direct payments will surely perk up interest among
larger farm operations. On Monday, “we released our income forecasts for
2011. What that basically showed is that while there’s overall income growth in
agriculture it isn’t necessarily equitably distributed among all sized
operations.”

Even so, “the safety net is a very, very important part of our overall commitment to agriculture and in this country. … But it needs to be targeted and focused on the people who need it the most.

“With incomes rising, roughly, 30 percent and some of that increase being directed at some of the larger operations, we feel this is a proposal that merits consideration. During the last couple of years, there has been some indication from (members) of the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee – particularly on the Republican side – in some interest in this. So, we’ve proposed it again in hopes of getting consensus. 

“To me, it’s really about making sure the safety net does what it needs to do. And, at the same time, we need to be focused, as well – not just on reducing budgets in this respect but also increasing investments and ways we can help producers to sell more.”

Thus the reason for the Obama administration’s “promoting additional export assistance because that’s targeted towards the larger commercial enterprises. It’s the reason why we continue to focus on regional and local food systems because that helps the small producer. And it’s the reason why we focus additional resources on things like biofuels because that – and conservation payments -- can be targeted towards folks in the middle.

“If you understand the breakdown of size-of-operation, commodities and so forth, you can see there is a need for a safety net. But it needs to be targeted and focused.”

Outbreaks and earmarks

Diseases and pest infestations are a constant worry in agriculture. With many in D.C. swearing off “earmarks” how can funds needed to fight an outbreak be secured?

“Within APHIS, particularly, we invest roughly $1 billion a year in a variety of efforts to eradicate, prevent or mitigate the impact of pests, invasive species and diseases,” said Vilsack. At the same time, we’re also focusing a significant amount of our research dollars on additional research in these areas.”

What the USDA attempts is to “make an informed judgment on what is the best strategy for dealing with a particular pest or disease. There are times when our work is successful – which means we can reallocate or redirect resources to a particular disease or pest causing a significant problem. We’ve had some success with screwworm, some success with some cotton pests.”

On the flipside, “we see the gypsy moth and the grapevine moth that are causing problems and issues. So, we may have to redirect resources to address those.

“There may be circumstances where we thought eradication was the best (approach) but isn’t working well. Maybe we should be minimizing the impact of one disease and taking resources and directing (them) to something where we can have even greater success.”

Vilsack doesn’t believe it “necessarily requires a member of Congress to specifically earmark something that goes into their district. The earmarks we’re talking about eliminating are essentially building projects – some of which may very well be very, very important for the government to have. But it ought to be discussed in the context of a national need not necessarily just as a congressional district’s need.”