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 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.”

MAP and exports

Last year, the Market Access Program was targeted for a 20 percent cut. Is the program intact for FY 2012 budget year?

“To be candid, there was a proposal to reduce it last year. But it was offset by increases in other export assistance programs. We hadn’t provided additional resources for cooperators for some time and felt there needed to be a proper balance.

In the current budget, “we’ve kept the MAP at its budgeted level from last year so there’s no reduction. And we’ve actually added an additional $20 million to our national export initiative efforts to see if we can get more resources to cooperators, more opportunities for trade shows and exhibits. Why? Because we’re seeing a very, very strong demand for American agricultural products. That’s one reason we’re seeing good prices, right now, for a lot of our commodities and livestock.”

Staffing the USDA

To trim costs, Obama’s FY 2012 budget calls fora “reduction of staff years” at the USDA. To keep from alarming USDA employees, Vilsack walked softly.

“I want to be careful how I say this because there are ways you can manage reductions without necessarily impacting folks who obviously want and need employment opportunities.

“We have normal attrition that occurs every year. We have a very aggressive process improvement effort under way. That identifies ways we can do our work more efficiently, which can free up resources. And we have a commitment to technology that makes us able to do our jobs more effectively and efficiently.

“When you combine all of those and look at management tools like early retirement programs and things of that sort, you can manage the reduction of a workforce without necessarily focusing on layoffs and things of that nature. That’s what we propose to do.”

Attrition occurs annually. “Rather than filling those jobs — or filling those jobs with a person at the same level – there are ways we can look at our supervisor-to-employee ratio. These are all management techniques and processes that are important to do…

“But sometimes it takes time to institute them. This budget reflects a commitment to process improvement, to using technology, to taking a look at decisions we make when folks retire.”