While not without some stumbling blocks, implementation of the 2002 farm bill and the recent disaster package have proceeded relatively smoothly, according to testimony at a House Ag subcommittee hearing. The hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management was held to review the implementation of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, and the Agricultural Assistance Act of 2003. "How well we have succeeded in our efforts, of course, is for others to decide," said J.B. Penn, undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, who has overseen implementation of the new farm bill. "However, we believe we have compiled an impressive record of accomplishments." While the complexity of the farm program – and the heavy workload in many county offices – made it impossible for some producers to sign-up for the program before the April 1 deadline, Penn says the Farm Service Agency has accommodated those producers. "This will enable all producers to enroll and complete contracts by June 2." Implementing the 2002 Farm Bill was no small undertaking, with several new programs included in the legislation. Benefits distribution "Since the 2002 farm bill was enacted less than a year ago, more than $7.5 billion in benefits already have been distributed to our farmers and ranchers," Penn says. "These programs contribute importantly to the safety net available to our farmers and ranchers, and we are well pleased with the progress and manner in which this new law has been implemented." In addition, Penn says, Farm Service Agency offices began implementing some of the disaster assistance provisions while the offices were in the midst of farm bill sign-up. Sign-up for the Tobacco Payment Program began March 17, that for the expanded Livestock Compensation Program began April 1, and producers will begin sign-up for the Crop Disaster Assistance Program June 6. "We began implementing these programs far earlier than previous disaster packages, which took five months to begin for the 1999 and 2000 crops," he says. "We have tried to implement all provisions as quickly and as efficiently as possible. We are striving for an environment that requires data entry only once, eliminates redundant processes and reconciles similar data, while improving efficiency and timeliness of program delivery and overall cost. "Throughout the implementation effort, USDA has focused on customer service, and a commitment to ensuring that all customers are treated equally and with dignity." Internet well used Included in this commitment for improved customer service, Penn says, is USDA’s extensive use of the Internet. The agency’s Web site features a "Farm Bill Frequently Asked Questions" page and an online base and yield analyzer developed by Texas A&M University. "This has enabled us to keep farmers and ranchers, as well as our employees in the field, fully informed about the new programs and provisions," he says. "This hearing was a good opportunity to hear first-hand about USDA’s efforts to serve the American farmer," said Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who became chairman of the subcommittee at the beginning of the year. "The combination of farm bill implementation and disaster assistance has created questions from farmers and ranchers and greatly increased the workload for USDA."