Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says the checks may not be in the mail just yet, but they will be issued on time. Testifying before some testy members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Veneman said USDA is on schedule for implementing the 2002 farm bill, including issuing its direct and counter-cyclical payments as soon as possible.

“We have made great progress in implementing the 2002 farm bill within a short period of time,” Veneman said. “I assure you we are working hard to get farm bill programs out to producers as quickly as possible, and we are working just as hard to do it right.”

She said signup for the direct and counter-cyclical payment program will begin Oct. 1 with payments starting very soon after. USDA employees at the federal and state levels are working with farmers to update acreage bases and yields, which is the first time since 1985 that producers will have had an opportunity to update program acreage.

Agriculture Committee members criticized some of the USDA decision-making, taking the secretary to task for not following Congress' directions on some loan rates and failing to purchase fruits and vegetables as required by the new farm bill.

Veneman defended USDA's actions, calling the implementation a “massive undertaking.” “The new law contains many complex issues and new programs that require a great deal of work to implement, such as writing new computer programs, developing new regulations, providing extensive training for USDA employees and working closely with producers to make sure they can best utilize and receive the programs and benefits,” she said.

Besides the farm bill implementation, Veneman also drew fire from Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, who criticized the Bush administration for insisting that any funding for disaster assistance be offset by farm bill spending reductions.

Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, noted that latest estimates show that 2002 farm bill spending will be down by $5.6 billion in fiscal 2002 because of higher commodity prices. Rather than making more cuts in the farm bill, the government should use those savings to pay for disaster assistance, he said.

But the secretary would not retreat from the administration's demands for spending offsets in the farm bill. She did say USDA would be announcing additional disaster relief for those producers hit hardest by the 2002 drought, including more aid for livestock producers.

Veneman also took some heat from Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., over USDA's announcements of oilseed and pulse-crop loan rates. Conrad charged that USDA had defied Congress on “item after item” in the commodity title of the new law.

“This secretary and her people think they know best. They have unilaterally taken money out of the farm bill that was intended to go to farmers,” Conrad said. “The truth is the administration never wanted this farm bill. They fought us every step of the way, and now they're trying to undo all that we accomplished.”

Responding to Conrad's criticism that USDA had arbitrarily reduced the loan rates for some oilseeds from 9.6 to 9.15 cents per pound, the secretary said certain provisions of the farm bill were unclear or contradicted each other, and USDA had to resolve those differences. “There have been differences among lawyers on what some of the language means,” she said. “Our interpretation is that the law gives USDA authority to adjust the loan rates.”

In reviewing the implementation process, Veneman listed these key accomplishments by USDA staff members:

  • Created an internal structure to insure that program implementation is coordinated in a timely manner department-wide and government wide, including the development of a detailed tracking system for all farm bill actions so that USDA leadership know the status for each requirement under the farm bill.
  • Established a 2002 farm bill Website with program details and answers to questions for producers needing information about the new law.
  • Began signup for the Milk Income Loss Contract, which provides counter-cyclical support payments to dairy producers, on Aug. 13 so that payments can begin next month.
  • Implemented an historic overhaul of the peanut program replacing the market quota system with the direct and counter-cyclical payment program. Signup began Sept. 3 and runs through Nov. 22. Payments will begin as soon as the rule is issued.
  • Published a final rule on program details for the sugar program and announced the 2002-crop marketing allotment quantities for beet and cane sugar.
  • Authorized more than $750 million for 2002 for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) and the Farmland Protection Program (FPP). USDA is working on initiating rulemaking on new programs, such as the Grassland Reserve Program and the Conservation Security Program.
  • Published final rules for WRP and WHIP in June and July, respectively. The proposed rule for the Agriculture Management Assistance program was published on Aug. 28.
  • Announced Aug. 12 the allocation for the additional $10 million for the Market Access Program for fiscal 2002 and published on Sept. 10 regulations for the new Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops Program and requested proposals for fiscal 2003 funding.
  • Awarded grants to states through the Women, Infant and Children Farmers' Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program.
  • Awarded more than $700 million in grants for 377 projects in 47 states and Puerto Rico for water and waste projects. In addition, $33 million in value-added grants will be awarded soon.
  • Voluntary guidelines for country-of-origin labeling are being developed and will be released in the near future.
  • Created an internal taskforce to help implement the office for the new assistant secretary for civil rights. USDA is interviewing candidates and a selection should be announced soon.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.