Vilsack: Debate Pits Growers Vs. Children

It’s coming down to a choice between large growers or feeding more hungry children in a troubled economy. That’s the decision U.S. lawmakers are facing, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters on Monday.

Retailers and others involved in the industry surely heard President Barack Obama’s request that lawmakers cut farm payments in his speech last week to a joint session of Congress. According to Vilsack, he already has heard some questions and concerns about the Obama administration’s plan to redirect subsidy payments for large growers into nutrition programs as a way to help end hunger by 2015 and stem the rising tide of childhood obesity.

"We will do our best to frame this discussion in that way, so that people understand: 30 million children, 90,000 farmers," Vilsack told Reuters after speaking to people who work with the nation’s food banks and anti-poverty groups.

"It is a tough choice, but it’s a choice that folks are going to have to make," he said.

Farm, anti-hunger, and land stewardship proponents usually work together on the omnibus "farm bills" that set U.S. policy on farm supports, stewardship incentives, public nutrition programs, exports, agricultural research, and bioenergy programs. Child nutrition programs are due for renewal this year.

President Obama last week proposed phasing out direct payments to growers with sales of more than $500,000 a year, to save $9.8 billion over 10 years, or roughly one-fifth of the $5.2 billion spent annually on the payments. Growers say they count on the payments to help provide stability amid volatile commodity prices, high costs for fertilizer, and unpredictable weather.

Direct payments are paid regardless of crop prices. Other U.S. subsidies are triggered by low prices. The administration would rather spend the money on childhood nutrition programs. One in six Americans receive some food from USDA programs such as food stamps, Vilsack said.

Farm groups and farm state lawmakers already have spoken out against the plan. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad have been among early critics.

About 126,000 U.S. farms have sales above $500,000 a year, according to the Agriculture Department.

Lawmakers rejected proposals for the 2008 farm law to limit grain, cotton, and soybean growers to a maximum of $250,000 a year in crop subsidies. But they voted to deny crop subsidies to people with more than $500,000 in adjusted gross income from off the farm and they tightened payment rules somewhat.

Vilsack said times have changed in the months since the 2008 law was enacted. "This is a different time than even when the farm bill was passed," he said in an interview, noting the dire economic conditions. He urged anti-hunger advocates gathered in Washington to make the case to Congress to support the move.

"There are vested interest groups that want to protect those (direct farm) payments," Vilsack said in a speech. "They are very vested. One fellow suggested that this was a declaration of war," he said.

(Source: Reuters)

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