During a Thursday morning (Aug. 30) press conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed Hurricane Isaac’s effect on Southern crops and held out hope that a new farm bill can be passed by Congress before current law expires on Sept. 30.

Speaking from Iowa, Vilsack also announced more than $18 million in grants to organizations across 24 states aimed to assist beginning farmers and ranchers.

The grants, he said, are for “a lot of small producers, beginning farmers, entities, and a number of colleges and universities working hard to make sure farming remains a viable option for young people.”

Queried on damage assessments for cotton, rice and soybeans in the South, Vilsack said USDA receives “a report on almost a daily basis. … On the cotton side there is a potential with high winds … to impact (the crop) a bit. I’m not sure it’s as deep a concern as you might expect.

“On the rice side, it depends on how severe and hard it hits. It could impact production.

“On the soybean side, it may make it very difficult, if not impossible, for some producers to harvest whatever crop they may have.

“We anticipate some impact on crops but we’re not able to know for sure until the storm works itself out. … This has been a tough year and that’s another reason why we need a strong safety net for producers and why we’re thankful there is crop insurance.”

Asked what would happen if a new farm bill isn’t in place by the Sept. 30 deadline — and how likely a reversion to 1949 permanent law is — Vilsack tried to put pressure on House leadership.

“There are several programs within the 2008 farm bill that will continue notwithstanding the Sept. 30 deadline. They’ll continue, in part, because they’re authorized under appropriations language or authorization language.

Farm groups unified

“First and foremost, the goal of over 40 farm groups … yesterday announcing their support for getting a (new farm bill) passed in September … is to get Congress to do its work. (That would) provide the certainty that producers need, want and should have.

 “In the last week, or so, we’ve announced farm income numbers. Those suggest … we’re still looking at strong farm income. We want that to continue. The last couple of years have been very strong in terms of farm income and exports and we want that to continue. We want a continued focus on alternative energy opportunities in the country.”

That list, Vilsack pointed out, “requires a (farm bill) be passed by Congress. There’s no reason why that can’t be done. Whatever differences exist within the House can be worked out with leadership. Whatever differences exist between the House and Senate (farm bill) versions – once the House ultimately passes its version – can be worked out.

“The reality is we have dairy farmers, we’ve got livestock producers, in desperate need of assistance. The Senate version of (the farm bill) would provide retroactively restoring the disaster assistance program of the 2008 farm bill and provide a new mechanism for supporting dairy…

“Farmers and ranchers are doing their work. They just need a partner in Congress — particularly the House — to get its work done.”

Is Vilsack aware of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees working together on a new farm bill over the August recess?

“I think there’s a desire of the leadership of both committees to work in concert, especially on the Commodity Title to make sure whatever differences exist (between farm bill versions) can be worked out. Then, when the (full) House (passes it’s farm bill) the conference process can be resolved quickly.

“As many farm groups as we’re seeing … providing the same message, it’s resonating out here in the countryside. Very rarely do you see this much uniformity among agricultural groups — they obviously have a lot of differences with each other. But on this particular issue they are one: there is a keen desire on the part those who live, work and raise their families in rural areas and rely on agriculture … for Congress to get its work done.”

Congress “has time, if it’s a priority of House leadership, to get (a new farm bill) done. We all know that. I sincerely hope that’s what happens.”

dbennett@farmpress.com