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Vilsack extends comment period for payment limitation rule

By Larry Dreiling


VILSACK ON THE AIR--U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack speaks to journalists across the country about the goals and objectives of the Obama administration for the U.S. Department of Agriculture during his first radio tele news conference from the radio studio of the USDA Broadcast Media and Technology Center, Jan. 26.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Jan. 26, announced he has extended the comment period for the 2008 farm bill program payment limitation and payment eligibility rulemaking process.

Vilsack discussed his priorities as Secretary of Agriculture during a teleconference call and said as part of the regulatory review process outlined by the White House and Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he is directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend the comment period for the payment limits rule for an additional 60 days.

"Let's be clear--in no way is this move a signal that we will modify the rules for the 2009 crop year," Vilsack said. "Sign up has begun and it's important that clear and consistent rules remain in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risk appropriately."

To date, USDA has only received seven comments on the payment limits rule and Vilsack says that by extending the comment period additional farmers and other interested parties will have the opportunity to comment.

"In keeping with President Obama's recent pledge to make government more transparent, inclusive, and collaborative, I would like to pursue an extended comment period so that more farmers and other individuals can participate in this rulemaking process," he said. "I'm particularly interested in suggestions that would help the department target payments to farmers who really need them and ensure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties for future crop years."

Vilsack also announced USDA does not plan to implement a proposal developed by the previous administration that would have cut more than $3 million from the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, a popular program that promotes the growth of fruits and vegetables.

Department modernization efforts

Perhaps the most interesting answer came over the issue of department modernization. Ironically, the question is linked to what Vilsack said was the first question he asked the transition staff when the president nominated him for secretary of agriculture.

"I was interested to know how many people actually work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And I was told that no one knows for sure how many people work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Vilsack said. "They could tell me how many checks are issued, but not how many people actually work here.

"That, together with a number of reports from the Inspector General's Office and from the GAO concerning the operation and management of the department, suggested that what we have here in some aspects in some areas of the department is, charitably, outdated, very dated computer technology--which is one of the reasons why we have urged Congress, as it considers the stimulus bill, to provide the resources that USDA needs to modernize its technology systems."

Vilsack said there were multiple reasons for this request.

"First and foremost, it is about improving the service to the people that we serve. We need, at some point in time, to have a web-based system that is easily accessible to farmers and ranchers and those who depend on the programs that USDA administers. To date, we don't have that kind of system in place. We ought to; in the 21st century, we ought to.

"Secondly, it is about data collection. If we are going to be able to certify to the taxpayers of this country that resources invested in USDA are being invested wisely, we have to be able to document the results--the return on investment if you will. That's difficult to do unless you have accurate information and data."

While, obviously, those who are working for USDA with outdated equipment do a tremendous job of putting together a multitude of facts and statistics and reports, Vilsack said, it's more difficult with outdated technology.

"Third, it's about efficiency. As you modernize the equipment, you give people who are doing difficult work, who are continually being asked to do more--you give them the opportunity to meet that challenge. So there are multiple reasons why it is important for us to modernize the technology of the department."

It will not be easy to make the modernization possible because of the way in which technology has been developed in the department, the needs of each of the 29 subcabinet areas that make up the USDA, and to a certain extent, the independent decisions made in the different areas about technology.

"One of the keys is to try to make sure that we work to develop a consistent system so that, for example, the secretary of agriculture can send one e-mail to employees on any issue as opposed to what happens today where multiple e-mails have to be sent because different agencies use different computer systems."

Workforce demographics may change

Vilsack said he was concerned about the aging workforce at USDA.

"If you look at the demographic make-up of the workforce, what you'll find is that 58 percent of the workers are 45 years or older, which means that you have, compared to the workforce generally across the country, an aging workforce," Vilsack said.

"And so, it's going to be necessary to sort of strategically look at retirements that will take place in key areas of USDA and how we will deal with those retirements as we lose the experience and the training and the background of these people who have worked for decades here.

"That's not easy to replace, and so it's going to be important for us to have a strategy in place to make sure we have a modern workforce and a workforce that is diverse that reflects the America of today."

Focusing on priorities

Priorities Vilsack discussed with reporters include:

--Combating childhood obesity and enhancing health and nutrition, indicating that the department should play a key role in the public health debate and that nutrition programs should be seen as an opportunity to both alleviate hunger and prevent health care problems.

--Advancing research and development and pursuing opportunities to support the development of biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources. Vilsack said USDA needs to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive recent market challenges while promoting policies that will accelerate the development of next-generation biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve our energy independence.

--Making progress on major environmental challenges, including climate change. Vilsack said it's important farmers and ranchers play a role with USDA in efforts to promote incentives for management practices that provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

--Supporting the profitability of farmers and ranchers by providing a safety net that works for all of agriculture, including independent producers and local and organic agriculture, and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act.

--Quickly implementing the 2008 farm bill; modernizing the food safety system; and investing in programs that alleviate hunger and suffering overseas and support long-term agriculture development.

--Restoring the mission of the Forest Service as a protector of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat; a provider of recreation opportunities; a key player in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Vilsack indicated that it is important that we appropriately budget for wildfires so that the Forest Service has the resources it needs for both wildfires and its other missions.

Working to ensure civil rights

Vilsack also said he intends to move quickly on another major challenge facing USDA--finally ending the department's struggle with civil rights.

"I don't think it's any secret, the department has had some issues over the course of time with civil rights, both in terms of its programming and in terms of its employment practices," Vilsack said. The good news is that the number of EEO complaints of the department has gone down recently--but that's the good news. The more difficult news is that we still have work to do to make sure that our workforce is representative of America.

"We need to do a better job of responding to challenges, apologizing for mistakes when we make them, empowering our employees to make decisions and drive change, and emphasizing a transparent and inclusive style of governing."

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by e-mail at ldreiling@aol.com.


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