Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced he will extend the comment period for the 2008 farm bill farm program payment limitation and payment eligibility rulemaking process.

Vilsack discussed his priorities as Secretary of Agriculture during a teleconference call Jan. 26 with agriculture and other reporters across the country and said that as part of the regulatory review process outlined by the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he is directing the Department to extend the comment period for the payment limits rule for an additional 60 days.

"Let's be clear — in no way is this move a signal that we will modify the rules for the 2009 crop year," Vilsack said. "Sign up has begun and it's important that clear and consistent rules remain in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately."

To date, USDA has only received seven comments on the payment limits rule and Vilsack says that by extending the comment period additional farmers and other interested parties will have the opportunity to comment.

"In keeping with President Obama's recent pledge to make government more transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, I would like to pursue an extended comment period, so that more farmers and other individuals can participate in this rulemaking process," he said. "I'm particularly interested in suggestions that would help the Department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years."

Vilsack also announced that the Department does not plan to implement a proposal developed by the previous Administration that would have cut more than $3 million from the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, a popular program that promotes the growth of healthy fruits and vegetables.

Priorities Vilsack discussed with reporters include:

• Combating childhood obesity and enhancing health and nutrition, indicating that the Department should play a key role in the public health debate and that nutrition programs should be seen as an opportunity to both alleviate hunger and prevent health care problems.

• Advancing research and development and pursuing opportunities to support the development of biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources, saying that USDA needs to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive recent market challenges, while promoting policies that will accelerate the development of next-generation biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve our energy independence.

• Making progress on major environmental challenges, including climate change. Vilsack said it's important that farmers and ranchers play a role with USDA in efforts to promote incentives for management practices that provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

• Supporting the profitability of farmers and ranchers by providing a safety net that works for all of agriculture, including independent producers and local and organic agriculture, and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act.

• Quickly implementing the 2008 farm bill; modernizing the food safety system; and investing in programs that alleviate hunger and suffering overseas and support long-term agriculture development.

• Restoring the mission of the Forest Service as a protector of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat; a provider of recreation opportunities; a key player in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Vilsack indicated it is important that we appropriately budget for wildfires so that the Forest Service has the resources it needs for both wildfires and its other missions.

Vilsack also said he intends to move quickly on the major challenges facing the Department — modernizing USDA's computer systems and finally closing the sad chapter of the Department's struggle with civil rights.

"We need to do a better job of responding to challenges, apologizing for mistakes when we make them, empowering our employees to make decisions and drive change, and emphasizing a transparent and inclusive style of governing."