USDA Undersecretary Michael Scuse visits drought-stricken areas
By Doug Rich
USDA Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse traveled across the Midwest the last week of August to see the effects of the drought firsthand.
"It is amazing when I go from state to state that the concerns are pretty much the same," Scuse said. "It is the dry weather, we need the rain, thank you for the help USDA has provided and we need a farm bill. That is what I have heard from every state I have visited."
After visiting farms in Missouri earlier in the day Scuse held a roundtable discussion at the Ag Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan., on Aug. 28. Scuse said one reason for his trip was to find out which programs are working and which programs are not working as USDA responds to the drought.
One thing that was not working early on was the length of time it took for the disaster designation process. In July Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced several improvements to the process that would simplify the Secretarial disaster designation process and result in a 40 percent reduction in processing time for counties affected by disasters. Improvements to the Secretarial disaster designation also included a reduced interest rate for emergency loans from 3.76 percent to 2.25 percent and a payment reduction on Conservation Reserve Program lands that qualify for emergency haying and grazing in 2012 from 25 to 10 percent.
Several producers in attendance at the roundtable thanked Scuse for releasing CRP acres for haying and grazing. Don Teske, a farmer from Onaga, Kan., and president of the Kansas Farmers Union, said releasing CRP acres for haying and grazing would make it possible for many producers to hang onto their cowherds this year. Teske said the amount of forage that many producers have been able to harvest off those acres has been encouraging. On his own farm Teske said he harvested 160 acres off a 40-acre field of CRP grass.
"We did not realize the amount of forage that would come off those fields," Scuse said.
Scuse said it might help producers in some areas if the Primary Nesting Season dates were moved up on the calendar. Earlier dates would make it possible to harvest CRP acres when the feed value of the grass is higher.
Additional funds for pond reclamation projects continues to be a big issue for many farmers and ranchers. The cost to clean out a pond can run from $5,000 to $10,000 depending on the size of the pond. Keith Miller, Kansas Farm Bureau board member and a farmer from Great Bend, Kan., said funds are needed to assist producers with rebuilding farm ponds and drilling new wells. Miller said he is hauling water to cattle in four pastures on his farm.
"Water is a real big issue in our community," Miller said.
Farm ponds are important not only for livestock water but also for fire protection. Rural fire departments pull water from ponds when they are fighting grass fires in remote areas.
Scuse was reminded several times how important the federal crop insurance program is to producers. Keith Miller said this is the second full year of drought on his farm and he will be filing for crop insurance on every acre and every crop on his farm this year.
"We did not raise anything," Miller said. "The soybeans were not even big enough to bale for hay."
Farmers have not always been so positive about crop insurance. Scuse used his own farm in Delaware as an example. He said ten years ago you could not have paid him to use crop insurance but today he would not farm without it. The federal crop insurance program has been improved but there are still changes that need to be made.
One of those changes involves coverage for irrigated acres. Currently crop insurance recognizes two practices, non-irrigated and irrigated. Rebecca Davis, director of the USDA Risk Management Agency in Topeka, Kan., said it would be helpful to have a classification for limited irrigation.
"Crop insurance is a big issue and those that have it are very appreciative of the fact that we have made changes to the crop insurance program over the last 15 years to make it a better product," Scuse said.
Several producers at the roundtable said that changes needed to be made to the Pasture, Range, and Forage Insurance program. The Pasture, Range and Forage pilot programs are only available in selected states and counties. According to RMA, coverage is based on the experience of the entire grid and not on individual farms or ranches or specific weather stations in the general area.
Although drought was the primary reason for Scuse's trip to the Midwest other topics of discussion did come up. Brenna Wulfkuhle, whose family farms in rural Douglas County, Kan., brought up the perception of the farm bill to people outside of agriculture. Wulfkuhle noted that many people in urban American look at the money dedicated to the farm bill and think that farmers are getting rich off the government checks they receive in the mail. What they don't realize is that a majority of the funds in the so-called farm bill go to food and nutrition programs that benefit urban areas.
Wulfkuhle wondered if it might not be better to refer to the legislation as a "food bill" rather than a "farm bill." Scuse said that Vilsack encourages his staff to refer to the legislation as the "Food, Farm and Jobs Bill."
Scuse also heard from local school officials about the new federal guidelines for school lunches that went into effect July 1. The new guidelines require schools to offer more whole grain food, to use only fat-free or low-fat milk, to reduce serving size, and to reduce saturated fats, trans fat, and added sugars and sodium.
Prior to this position, Scuse served as Deputy Undersecretary for the FFAS mission area from 2009 to 2011 and before joining USDA Scuse was Secretary of Agriculture for Delaware from 2001 to 2008.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-740-5304 or by email at email@example.com.