Vilsack was queried on the importance of target prices in a new farm bill considering the recent drop in commodity prices. He made clear that crop insurance should remain the conferees’ main focus.

“At the end of the day, I think crop insurance will be the lynchpin for the safety net. It’s a process that Americans understand and appreciate – you minimize or mitigate your risk. … Obviously, crop insurance doesn’t pay or provide total coverage. It’s unlike auto or home insurance – it basically covers a portion of the loss and gets you a point where you can survive a difficult year…

“That’s why it’s important to complement and supplement crop insurance with additional programs. Obviously, the conference committee is grappling with the nature of that additional program.”

If a new farm bill isn’t passed would the USDA have any options other than allow 1949 permanent law to kick in?

“This isn’t a situation where you have a choice,” said Vilsack. “The reality is we have to have a clear indication from Congress that this will get done. Obviously, there are some who are skeptical about that given the fact that there’s already been one year with inaction.

“People say, ‘Well, we can always extend (the 2008 farm bill).’ The problem with an extension – and people don’t seem to be focused on this but should be – is that with an extension come costs. And you don’t get the reforms that the bill being considered by the conference committee will provide. (An extension won’t) provide the savings that are important to members of Congress as they deal with deficit reduction challenges. In fact, it would likely cost additional resources and would be difficult to identify those additional resources.”

Vilsack urged the conferees to “focus on getting the job done and understand that there is a consequence if the job isn’t done. That consequence is that, at some point, the USDA will responsible under the law … to begin instituting the policies of the 1940s. No one wants to do that.”

Ag news delivered daily to your inbox: Subscribe to Delta Farm Press Daily.

 How might the wide gap between the proposed Senate and House food stamp funding cuts – some $4 billion versus $40 billion – be bridged?

“My suspicion will be one of the issues that will be last addressed. But I’m encouraged by the public statements from conferees that focus less on numbers and more on policy. I’ve been saying all along that if you get the policy right, you’ll get the number right.

“I think there are ways the program could be more efficient. There are ways we can encourage states to do a better job of … educating folks about work opportunities. But we must also understand that 92 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are senior citizens, people with disabilities, children, or people already in the workforce. The other 8 percent of able-bodied folks without dependents already have a work requirement. But (that requirement) is waived from time to time during tough economic times.”