Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack applauded U.S. farmers' productivity and conservation stewardship today during a hearing to kick off the 2012 farm bill process and take the "great step down the long deliberative road" over the next year to write the next farm bill, Stabenow said.

Stabenow said the hearing differed from other farm bill hearings because it focused on principles important to the discussion and the ability of U.S. agriculture to feed the world, how that is accomplished, and the risks and challenges that come with it.

U.S. agriculture's story over the last 50 years is one "of incredible production gains and impressive conservation," she said. U.S. agriculture remains "the bright spot" in the nation through innovation, increased productivity, and better land and water stewardship.

Vilsack said American farmers are responsible "in no small way for the health and strength of our great nation." He added American agriculture has reduced soil erosion by 40 percent and leads the nation in wetland restoration.

Due to external budget pressures, there is "no doubt that the next farm bill will be smaller than the one written in 2008," Vilsack said. He added that USDA is prepared to operate in the 21st century by doing more with fewer resources and by operating differently and that it might not deliver all the services it provides today.