Eyeing USDA's Budget Request

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Questions about the meat industry dominated a Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing Tuesday at which Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appeared in person to discuss the Biden administration's budget request for fiscal year 2022.

In an opening statement, Vilsack said, "The president's budget for 2022 for USDA programs within this subcommittee is $192 billion, of which approximately $168 billion is mandatory funding and $23.2 billion is net discretionary funding. Its gives USDA a new set of tools and builds on our existing capabilities to address the urgent challenges of our time -- containing the pandemic, responding to the nutrition insecurity crisis, investing in research, rebuilding the rural economy, strengthening and building markets for farmers and producers and addressing the impacts of climate change. This is not a list of things we would like to do -- it is a plan for what we need to do to get USDA back on track and to help the U.S. outcompete the rest of the world."

In response to a question from Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., about the release of pandemic aid to farmers, Vilsack noted that USDA announced Tuesday it will provide aid to biofuels, dairy, poultry, livestock and organic producers and to small, family-owned timber harvesters and haulers. (See "More Ag Pandemic Relief Details" by DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton https://www.dtnpf.com/… )

Leahy noted it was the first time in his memory he had asked a Cabinet secretary to do something and "gotten the answer it is today."

But most questions focused on the livestock industry. After Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., noted the giant Brazilian-based meat company JBS's U.S. and Australian operations had been hacked and that it paid an $11 million ransom, Vilsack said he wants to be sure the meat companies know what they need to do and USDA will convene a meeting of food companies on the issue.

Vilsack also said USDA will come up with "a very creative way to expand processing in this country." But when asked about expanding interstate sales of state-inspected meat, Vilsack said the inspection system has to be "equivalent" to federal inspection or there would be "chaos in the export markets."

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., said cattle producers need "fairness" in the markets.

Focusing on the budget, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the subcommittee chairwoman, told Vilsack the administration's request to increase the discretionary budget by $3 billion is "ambitious," but Vilsack said the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) needs the money and that more is needed for staffing, research and climate programs.

Vilsack said the staffing priorities are in "customer-facing" agencies such as the Rural Development mission area and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Vilsack also said the Farm Service Agency is getting its job done, with most of its offices reopened. But he added USDA is now surveying its staff about teleworking in the future.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., subcommittee ranking member, said he wants to be sure carbon sequestration programs are "farmer-friendly and we don't get one size fits all." He noted that corn and soybean farmers may not need to till, but that sugar beet farmers in North Dakota's Red River Valley do need to till and could not sequester carbon in the same way as the corn and soybean farmers.

Vilsack said a carbon market can't be one size fits all, cannot be mandatory and cannot reward latecomers at the expense of early adopters. Vilsack also said current carbon markets do not work for farmers, and a carbon market needs to be developed with reduced paperwork and a price that makes sense so farmers benefit.

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., noted farmers and grain traders have lost confidence in the production estimates from USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) but he would "advocate for" a $10 million increase in that agency if Vilsack would promise the problems would be resolved. If it doesn't solve the problem, "then I'm not doing my job," Vilsack said.

Baldwin complained the administration wants to open a dairy business innovation program to other agricultural sectors, but Vilsack said she should be pleased the program has been so successful it is a model for aid to other sectors that have waste that could be converted into products.

Baldwin replied the program has been good "because it is so focused."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, complained that USDA plans to end a potato breeding program, but Vilsack said funds would still be available through competitive research grants and USDA wants to "blend" more research into the competitive grants program.

Vilsack said if Congress wants to increase the percentage of Americans with access to high-speed Internet service beyond the current 64%, it will have to put a lot more money into it.

At the present rate, Vilsack said, "It will take many, many years" and "you are going to be asking this of me for the next four years, of other people for fill-in-the-blank years."

"We, as a country, need to fish or cut bait on this," Vilsack said.

USDA should have some information available on its reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan that governs nutrition benefits later this summer so that states have information on estimated costs before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, Vilsack said.

Watch the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies hearing on the 2022 budget request for USDA here: https://www.appropriations.senate.gov/…

Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at jhagstrom@nationaljournal.com

Follow him on Twitter @hagstromreport

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