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Hitting the ground running

By Seymour Klierly

It has been less than a month since former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack became our 30th Secretary of Agriculture. Even though he had just found the restrooms at USDA, he's already taking a stand on many of agriculture's most complex and long-standing policy disputes.

Any producer, who has signed up for 2009 programs with FSA, has encountered the paperwork labyrinth of the new eligibility requirements. Documenting that you are land owners and your business partners and spouses meet some "left hand and right hand" actively engaged definition, as well as the average Adjusted Gross Income test, generates a good deal of business for farm managers and CPA's across the country. Several members of both the House and Senate Ag Committees have urged USDA to simplify these paperwork requirements. While Secretary Vilsack agreed to extend the public comment deadline on how the program will work for next year, he decided not to change the process for this year. Essentially, producers may have one set of rules for 2008, and a different set of rules for 2009, and another set of rules for 2010. Maybe this is part of USDA's contribution to stimulating the economy.

While addressing the National Association of Wheat Growers and the U.S. Wheat Associates, Secretary Vilsack put all on notice that as far as he's concerned Direct Payments are giving U.S. farm programs a black eye in the eyes of our trading partners. He believes these payments are difficult to defend and encouraged producers to establish other types of income on their operations. Vilsack suggested producers look to windmills, biofuels and, of course, the always profitable, organic agriculture model, to boost their income. That's right, folks, the head of USDA, or as he's quoted in the Washington Post--"America's first energy department,"--apparently thinks he can't defend our farm programs abroad. The obvious question then is: Will he criticize other nations' income programs with the same level of scrutiny as ours? If he wants to end these payments in the U.S., hopefully, he and President Obama's trade team will take similar action against egregious programs in other countries.

Shortly after his attack on Direct Payments, Secretary Vilsack decided to officially weigh in on ethanol policy. You may recall that at his confirmation hearing, Senator John Thune (R-SD) asked Vilsack to consider urging the EPA to increase the allowed amount of ethanol mixed with gasoline from 10 percent to 15 or 20 percent. Less than four weeks after telling Senator Thune he would look into it, Secretary Vilsack publically encouraged EPA to increase the percentage. Vilsack claimed increasing the fuel percentage would help stabilize the ethanol industry. Are we to think that ethanol is the only industry the former governor from Iowa is concerned about? Might this policy change also help increase corn prices? I wonder...

It's obvious our new secretary isn't afraid of hitting the ground running as he takes office; although, a bigger question remains: In what direction is he running?

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