Queried by Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member of the committee, regarding the USDA response to producer losses due to recent tornados, Vilsack said assistance has been vigorous. “The Livestock Indemnity Program is designed to help those who have lost livestock as a result of disasters. I encourage producers to make sure to have adequate records and we’ll work with them to process applications as quickly as possible.

“We already have the programs in place, the resources are there and folks are anxious to help. We’ll also use our resources at USDA to provide for appropriate disposal. That’s also an issue in disaster situations. Our folks at APHIS will be willing to work with producers in Mississippi to make sure all the rules and regulations relative to disposal are followed, as well.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the committee, asked about the implementation timeline of new rules linking conservation compliance to crop insurance.

“It’s important to note that it was effective the day the President signed the farm bill,” replied Vilsack. “So, farmers were under this obligation and responsibility if they want to continue receiving the government subsidy for crop insurance as of, I believe, Feb. 7 of this year.

“Sometime this summer the basic structure of conservation compliance (will be ready). Most producers are already compliant because in order to get disaster assistance and other benefits under the 2008 farm bill, you had this responsibility anyway.

“We expect the roughly 6,000 producers who may be impacted by this will have until the middle part of (2015) to produce their compliance plan, to make sure it’s certified and ensure they don’t lose the benefits of the government subsidy in crop insurance. If they fail to do that, they’ll still be able to buy crop insurance but without the subsidy.”

What about the farm bill provision to help beginning farmers and ranchers by reducing the cost of insurance for the first five years of operation?

“That will be implemented before the end of this year. In addition, we’ll work with FSA offices to ensure that the reduction of the interest rate is of some assistance. We’ve also recently announced the availability of assistance from third parties to help beginning farmers and ranchers put together plans. We’re also working closely with veteran groups to create opportunities.”

Cochran also asked about the status of the USDA catfish inspection program. Long pushed for by U.S. catfish producers, the program, although authorized in the 2008 farm bill, was never implemented.

Vilsack said the USDA would send a final rule establishing the program to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by the end of May.

“The USDA has made good progress to implement policies in the new farm bill, including the catfish inspection program.  I appreciate that, but I intend to see that the food safety inspection program for catfish is successfully put in place,” Cochran said.

“The catfish inspection program was authorized in 2008 and we saw some progress then, too.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s administration has stalled the program for years. We need to make sure that cannot happen again, and it’s why we gave them clear direction in the farm bill.”