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Vilsack, Merrigan stress need for farm bill for dairy producers

While Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at a dairy expo in Wisconsin today about the need for a farm bill that creates a new dairy program, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said in Washington that, as a native New Englander she is particularly worried about the fate of dairy farmers.

In an interview after a speech to the United Fresh Produce Association, Merrigan said she is “sad” that so many programs she has championed for the fruit and vegetable and organic industries lost their authorization when the farm bill expired, but that she is most worried about the impact of the bill’s expiration on dairy producers.

The Milk Income Loss Contract program has expired while dairy farmers face low prices and high feed costs, but USDA cannot use Section 32 authority to help dairy farmers in the way it helped livestock producers because dairy farmers get subsidies and Section 32 cannot be used for supported commodities.

In her speech, Merrigan said USDA faces two types of budgetary uncertainty.

The approval of a continuing resolution to fund the government through March 27 was good, she said, but managers of federal programs will be hesitant about spending money because they wonder “what shoe will drop on March 27” and whether sequestration, which would reduce the USDA budget by $3 billion, will go into effect.

The other uncertainty, she said, is whether Congress will pass a new farm bill. The House’s failure to bring up the bill before the election “serves as an unnecessary speed bump for American agriculture,” she said.

“We hope Congress does its job when it comes back,” Merrigan said. She also told the fruit and vegetable farmers industry executives who were headed to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to pass the farm bill that they should take a cue from the currently successful Washington Nationals baseball team and adopt some “natitude” in their meetings.