USDA officials are studying Bush administration rules issued for the implementation of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 to ensure consistency with the intent of Congress, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a Feb. 10 address to USA Rice Federation leaders.

Vilsack — who was making one of his first public appearances at the 2009 USA Rice Federation Government Affairs Conference — outlined challenges faced by his department, not the least of which are budget shortfalls resulting from a projected budget deficit for 2010 approaching $1 trillion while fighting two wars. Finding money to implement the farm bill according to the intent of Congress will not be easy, he said.

Responding to questions from Missouri grower Paul T. Combs, Texas grower L.G. Raun, and Arkansas grower Jennifer James, Vilsack said that while he couldn't make promises, the department would look into the possibility of extending the June 1 farm programs filing deadline. USDA will also investigate whether changes can be made for the 2009 crop year, he said.

Among the many topics Vilsack discussed was the need to transition to a single agency responsible for food safety. The United States is the only industrialized nation to have two separate agencies responsible for food safety, he said. “That creates the opportunity for problems, for things to fall through the cracks,” he said, emphasizing the importance for Americans to have confidence in their food supply.

In addition to Vilsack's presentation, visits with key lawmakers and Obama administration officials were at the core of conference activity. USA Rice leadership and staff members throughout the week met with members of the Senate and House of Representatives, USDA officials, and key staff members at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Discussions included implementation of the Food, Energy and Conservation Act of 2008, trade priorities such as reopening trade and travel with Cuba, and appropriations for agriculture.

The rice leaders attended more than 70 meetings in lawmakers' and agency officials' offices Feb. 10-11. “Over the past two days the rice industry successfully thanked returning lawmakers for their assistance in the 110th Congress and made great contacts with new members, outlining effectively for all of them and Obama administration officials our top issues and concerns,” said Tommy Hoskyn, USA Rice Producer Group chairman, after the end of the second day of meetings. “‘We look forward to working more with them as the issues develop.”

More than 70 rice producers and millers visited 12 rice-state U.S. Senate offices to explain why the Obama administration should revise the Bush administration's interim final rule for payment limitation and adjusted gross income commodity program provisions, with the changes applying to the 2009 crop as well as those for 2010-12.

“We have told our senators that the interim final rule issued in December for payment limitation and AGI went well beyond the farm bill provisions passed by Congress in 2008 and does not reflect congressional intent,” Hoskyn said.

USA Rice on Feb. 4 sent USDA a seven-page letter detailing concerns about the interim final rule, which the Obama and Bush administrations said would apply without changes for the 2009 crop year. USA Rice recommended that the interim final rule modifications begin with the 2009 crop.

USA Rice leaders also met with Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee, to share grower concerns about USDA's implementation of the farm bill, particularly the payment limit and eligibility rule published in late December and intended to apply for the 2009 crop year.

The group pointed to several provisions in the rule that go well beyond the changes required by Congress and do not follow congressional intent.

Chambliss and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., sent a Feb. 9 letter signed by 22 other farm-state senators to Vilsack asking for a review of the payment limitation rule to ensure that it adheres to congressional intent.

The group also discussed the need for expanded agricultural trade with Cuba, which imports between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of rice each year.

Cuba was the largest single market for U.S. rice until the trade and travel embargo imposed by the United States more than two generations ago. Trade with Cuba resumed in 2001, but was curtailed sharply by the Bush administration's tightening of Treasury Department rules requiring cash payment in advance of shipment.

Rice leaders also thanked Chambliss for his work on the farm bill and for keeping pressure on the USDA to correctly implement the bill's commodity program provisions.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told rice industry leaders that the nation's mounting budget woes could threaten some farm bill funding. Lawmakers could be considering farm funding cuts, which would jeopardize its full implementation, said Conrad, who spoke during a breakfast meeting.

The farm bill is paid for and does not add to the deficit, which “has doubled in the past eight years and will double over the next eight years if it keeps up the current pace,” Conrad said. “There are enormous implications for agriculture during these budget discussions and what agriculture must do is remind people that 66 percent of the farm bill goes toward nutrition,” the senator added. “We have one of the least expensive food costs per share of income of any nation in history, and one of the reasons is the support we provide to American farmers, which is less than 16 percent of the cost of the farm bill.”

Conrad urged rice industry leaders to be vocal in their defense of American agriculture and its success in keeping food costs low for U.S. consumers. “You have to do a better job of telling your story so that people see the value you bring to the nation.”

Rice grower and miller leaders on Feb. 11 directed most of their efforts on House office visits. One of those meetings was a luncheon held near Capitol Hill for Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee.

In addition to some of the concerns mentioned above, industry leaders also discussed environmental issues, fertilizer costs and the high tariffs on urea imports. “I respect the unique value of your crop and [its] unique circumstances,” Lucas said.

The group also discussed the interrelatedness of agriculture with wider segments of the economy, including heavy industry and transportation. “We have to invest in production agriculture to invest in the needs of the country,” Lucas said.

Luncheon participants included leaders from USA Rice Federation, Farmers' Rice Cooperative, Producers Rice Mill, Riceland Foods, and California, Louisiana and Texas rice producers.