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Agriculture Secretary pushes for farm bill

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is continuing to push Congress to send a farm bill to President Obama’s desk. And he says dwindling farmer numbers mean coupling agricultural policy with nutrition programs is essential.

At a Monday summit in Ames, Iowa, sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Vilsack repeated a common refrain: that the bill encompasses food, farm and jobs policies and affects many more Americans than just farmers and recipients of nutrition assistance. He said he wants Congress to make long-term decisions now rather than ending up with another one year extension—the current one expires on Sept. 30.

“Honestly, an extension removes any impetus for getting a farm bill done,” Vilsack said.

Plus, he said writing the bill isn’t going to get easier.

“The challenge and the risk of not getting it done this year is that you’re not likely to get it done in an election year, as we saw in 2012,” he said, “and then if you don’t get it done in the election year, then you have a new Congress.”

TheU.S. House split farm policy and nutrition programs into two separate bills—though it has not passed a nutrition one yet—and Vilsack said that reflects a lack of understanding of the importance of the longstanding alliance between agriculture and nutrition. Such a split, he said, will hurt farmers because there are so few of them.

“We in agriculture must have strategic alliances to be able to extend our advocacy so that we have friends in lots of different places advocating for the farm programs that are important to us,” Vilsack said. “Because when you’re less than one-tenth of 1 percent, you really have to have the other 99 percent engaged or they’re not going to pay attention to you.”

Besides, Vilsack says that more than 15 cents of every food-stamp dollar lands in a producer’s pocket, so slashing the supplemental nutrition assistance program by $20 billion, as the House proposed, would take $3 billion away from farmers.

Vilsack’s comments come as the clock continues to tick for the House and Senate to reconcile their differences on a new five-year farm bill. Congress will be on recess for much of August and the two chambers must come to a compromise both bodies can pass before they can send legislation to President Obama.

More: Farm country and the House farm bill

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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