However, Sen. Conrad (D-N.D.) cautioned against cutting too deeply into programs for U.S. farmers, especially when “the playing field is tilted against them.” He said the European Union is “outdoing us in support three to one.”

Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and several other Senators asked Agriculture Secretary Vilsack about ethanol. He responded that he supported the need to have a “glide path” for phasing out ethanol subsidies as well as the need to make additional investments in ethanol related infrastructure.

“We hope you don’t provide a cliff,” Vilsack said, citing the devastating blow delivered to the biodiesel industry when subsidies totally stopped last year. “If there is to be an end, there needs to be a glide path and perhaps a redirection to help bolster the industry. At a time when high gas prices are already hurting consumers, the situation would be worse without ethanol. Americans are paying 89 cents a gallon less because we have the ethanol industry.”

Vilsack added that when people hear “farm bill” they immediately think mostly if not entirely of subsidies. The reality is the farm bill is far more expansive than that, and one of the key steps moving forward will be to publicize the key role that research plays in agricultural development and progress.

More land is going to non-agricultural uses, yet the world's population is growing. Research and new technologies will be critical to meet future needs. Biotech crops already have increased farmer income. Fortified seeds, drought-resistant crops, and other innovations benefit the United States and developing nations.

Vilsack also noted that the 2012 farm bill will be smaller than the 2008 farm bill with the question being how to leverage available funds as cuts will be difficult to make. He said, though, that the present time poses an opportunity for the Agriculture Department to have greater efficiency and flexibility and improved services and delivery.

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the United States is poised to continue its leadership position in agricultural research. However, he said, “We need a 21st century review of our agricultural research.” A lot of research is important, but also repetitive or routine, he added; and there is not enough generic, basic research.

Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) cited the importance of crop insurance and ethanol programs and encouraged Secretary Vilsack to continue to push for tighter limitations and income tests to insure payments “go to those who truly need them.”