Vilsack was queried on a Senate provision that would reduce crop insurance premiums for the wealthiest farmers. Vilsack said President Obama’s budget made it clear that “there need to be limits on the help and assistance provided. Whether it’s crop insurance or another program that complements and supports crop insurance, it’s really designed to provide financial assistance when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate or when, for whatever reason, the markets turn and it’s difficult for producers … to be able to survive a difficult year.”

Those lawmakers unable to come up with a farm bill deal, said Vilsack, “have been holding rural America at bay, have been holding farmers, sportsmen, anglers and hunters at bay for far too long.”

Without passage of a new farm bill or extension how quickly might 1949 law – and the prospect of $8-per-gallon milk -- kick in?

Vilsack wouldn’t provide a specific date but did say USDA staff “is working on how we would go about implementing the provisions of permanent law. Our hope and belief is that isn’t necessary. Our hope and belief is it won’t have to occur if Congress finishes its work. But we will be prepared if Congress fails to act to do what the law requires. We’ll do it in an expeditious way.”

What about worries that a proposal to switch the basis for subsidy payments to planted acres could set up U.S. agriculture for WTO challenges?

As he has in recent months, Vilsack brought up the need for a new farm bill to avoid further problems with the WTO case on U.S. cotton brought by Brazil. “I think it’s incumbent on Congress – and I’m sure people are sensitive to this – not to create another opportunity for the WTO to criticize the way in which we’re supporting producers and reducing the risk associated with farming.

“We’re obviously encouraging (lawmakers) to find that compromise that allows them to respond to the needs of all different types of commodities. … There needs to be a blend, a balance. There also needs to be an awareness that we’re engaged in a global economic activity and are abiding by the rules if we want others to abide by them.”

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Asked if the farm bill negotiations would be smoother if taken from conferees and placed in the hands of the White House and Congressional leadership, Vilsack backed those leading the farm bill conference. They “are doing a good job. They’re working hard and making the effort. They just simply have to be committed, as I believe they are, to getting it done, and quickly.

“At the end of the day, we don’t want to make the perfect be the enemy of the good.”