WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack bristled at complaints from both Democrats and Republicans of unchecked departmental spending and delayed support for farmers during a Thursday U.S. Senate oversight hearing.

He also lobbied Congress to provide a farm bill that will balance large-scale productivity with the needs of small and mid-sized producers, a theme the secretary has been pressing in recent appearances.

Vilsack spoke to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry about his concern that 90% of farmers did not make a livable on-farm profit in 2022, a year of record-setting farm income. 

He added that the challenge of increasing market equity between different kinds of farms dates back to 1863 for the Department of Agriculture, when the first annual report from the Commissioner of Agriculture was released. 

Vilsack said there is a need for the agency to generate new markets for farmers, and foster a spirit of entrepreneurialism that will revitalize rural America.

“Drafting a farm bill is not an easy task, and is particularly difficult in this day and age,” Vilsack said. “I am excited about this. I want to work with the committee to ensure that as you’re crafting this farm bill, that we address this issue, because I think it’s an important one. And it has a rippling effect.”

The farm bill is a multiyear omnibus spending law which authorizes an array of agricultural and food programs, including federal crop insurance, food stamp benefits, international food aid and farm resource conservation. The roughly $500 billion bill is renewed close to every five years, and includes mandatory spending that must be in line with previous farm bills.

Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, also spoke to progress in the rollout of rural broadband, and challenges with staffing agency offices due to an outdated pay schedule and attrition during the Trump administration.

Costs of climate plans, food benefits 

Republican committee members pressed Vilsack on recent investments in climate-smart agriculture, and updates to a meal plan tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that they say came without sufficient oversight.

In 2021, the USDA updated the Thrifty Food Plan, one of four food plans the USDA develops to estimate the cost of a healthy diet. The plan is directly tied to SNAP benefit allocations. The USDA received authorization to adjust the plan in the 2018 farm bill.

The adjusted Thrifty Food Plan boosted SNAP allocations by an average of 40 cents per meal for every enrollee. Republicans in Congress note that the changes are expected to add at least $250 billion in costs to the program between 2023 and 2031. 

In responding to a question from Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Vilsack said there was “no direction in the law” which required the USDA to ensure the update would be cost-neutral.

Arkansas Republican Sen. John Boozman, ranking member of the committee, said that during the Congressional Budget Office review process in the last farm bill cycle, the USDA provided technical assistance saying the adjustment would be cost-neutral.

“I understand your argument, but I don’t think it holds water,” Boozman said. “I don’t think Secretary Perdue thought this was going to be a revenue-producer of $300 billion, nor did anybody on this committee.”

“Senator, with all due respect, I don’t think I necessarily am bound to what Secretary Perdue thought when he was secretary,” Vilsack responded, referring to Sonny Perdue, USDA chief during the Trump administration.

“My point is that when you’re going to spend $300 billion, you come to Congress and say ‘This is a problem, we need to address it,’” Boozman said. “I’m not saying that it didn’t need to be updated, or necessarily that we didn’t need to spend some money. This was a massive amount of money, and it wasn’t done right.”

Republican Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas said farmers in his district are concerned that the Department of Agriculture will use the Commodity Credit Corporation to generate funding for programs that Congress does not include in the farm bill, as in the Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities.

The Commodity Credit Corporation is a federal government-owned corporation that finances efforts to stabilize prices and ensure adequate supply of commodity goods.

“Our farmers and ranchers feel like how you’re using the CCC is outside of the law,” Marshall said. “And I think that we need to be able to better understand that.”

Vilsack responded that the agency will continue to create programs that fall within the guidelines for the CCC, like the Climate-Smart Commodities project, which creates markets.

“When we did the Partnership for Climate-Smart Agriculture initiative, we had a farmer and rancher and food alliance, made up of major commodity groups, say to us two things,” Vilsack said.

“One is ‘You, secretary, do this. Do it in a voluntary, incentive-based, market-based way.’ And two, ‘You, secretary, fund through the CCC.’ These are the major farm organizations telling us how to fund this.”

Republican Sen. Mike Braun of Indiana asked Vilsack if the total spending of the federal government worries him, and if it is sustainable for the fiscal health of future generations.

“I’m sure you and I are probably gonna disagree on this,” Vilsack said. “I think the president is right when he says it’s important for this country to rebuild the middle class, from the bottom up. And that’s gonna require some investment to transform the economy, and I think agriculture has a role to play in that.”

“I’m very uncomfortable with borrowing this for future generations,” Braun replied. “Sooner or later, it impacts even programs like ag that need a healthy federal government.”

“Take a look at some of the investments that are being made, particularly in infrastructure,” Vilsack responded. “I mean, how else can you finance this?”

“Well, you’re going to have to do what you did as a governor, and have to find ways — like every other place does — where you don’t spend so much money in other areas,” Braun said.
‘Very, very low’ morale in 2020

Vilsack told the committee that when he took over in 2020, the department had 6,500 fewer employees, and morale was “very, very low.” He added that while the department has been working to add staff, it is a challenge because the compensation system is “not competitive.”

Regardless, the secretary faced numerous concerns over the rollout and responsiveness of the department to inquiries.

Democratic Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont said organic dairy farmers are struggling significantly in Vermont with drought and supply chain woes, and while there is $100 million in federal aid available, the state’s farmers have not been able to access it.

“Where is the money?” Welch asked.

“The money is in process,” Vilsack responded. He noted that the department is streamlining the application, and is accumulating information to set the baseline for reimbursement based on 75% of the future marketing costs of 2023. He said people should be ready to start putting in applications by the summer.

“I’ll just try to convey the sense of urgency these farmers are feeling,” Welch said. “The clock is ticking for these folks. So anything we can do to speed that up, they really need the help.”

Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia asked about the rollout of $2.2 billion in aid to economically distressed farmers that have suffered historical discrimination from the USDA. He added that they have not seen any financial relief yet, even though the funding program was authorized in the reconciliation bill.

Vilsack said that the department has begun the process of establishing regional hubs for distribution, and hired a national administrator to determine “who gets what.” He added that the goal would be to get resources out by the end of the year.

“Anytime you’ve asked for information, senator, I’ve given it to you,” Vilsack said.

“I’m not concerned about me, I’m concerned about the farmers, who have been waiting for a very long time,” Warnock responded. “If you feel impatient, imagine how impatient they’ve been feeling.”

Rural connectivity and disaster aid

Vilsack also touched on the rollout of programs related to rural broadband and disaster assistance.

Republican Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska asked Vilsack about efforts to expand rural broadband to the “last acre” so as to maximize access to precision agriculture for farmers.

Vilsack said they are looking at ways to refurbish existing networks, and reworking the budget to further increase internet access to the last mile.

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio asked Vilsack about providing guidance to farmers near East Palestine, Ohio, who are concerned about the safety of their products due to proximity to a train derailment disaster in the area last month. Brown also asked about developing a disaster relief program for human-caused disasters.

Vilsack said that the USDA will “try to be helpful” on the ground in supporting farmers and the EPA. Yet he added that energy might be better devoted to ensuring flexibility for disaster relief in upcoming farm bills rather than making a specific program for this incident.