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Scuse: Safety net should be farm bill priority

FARGO, N.D. — Congress should pass legislation to protect farmers from disaster and other losses that are not covered by crop insurance, two Obama administration Agriculture Department officials said here today.

Speaking at a farm bill conference organized by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and North Dakota State University, Acting Agriculture Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse said that the first principle of the Obama adminstration’s farm bill guidance to Congress is that the legislation should have a “robust safety net” to protect farmers from disasters and market instability.

Acting USDA Undersecretary Michael Scuse
Acting Undersecretary Michael Scuse
Scuse noted that the permanent disaster program known as SURE 'wasn't a sure thing for everyone and didn’t get the funding out fast enough,” but he urged Congress to write an improved version of SURE and the other disaster programs that expired Sept. 30 in the next farm bill.

He added that the disaster programs have to work for producers in all parts of the country, noting that dryland farmers have different needs from rice farmers and that they both have different needs from cattle producers.

Scuse said that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s other principles for the farm bill are programs to help farmers “produce an affordable, quality product” through programs such as research and development and to create “vibrant fair markets” and to expand markets abroad.

The Farm Service Agency, which hands out the farm subsidies, has reduced its staff by 1,600 employees in recent years and expects to downsize more through a buy-out program now in effect, Scuse said.

Bill Murphy, Risk Managaement Agency
Bill Murphy, Risk Management Agency
Risk Management Agency Administrator Bill Murphy told the conference that he supports programs that would help farmers recover losses beyond the 75 percent that can be covered by crop insurance.

“If I only got 75 percent of my pay check I’d be concerned,” he said.

Murphy added in an interview that he expects crop insurance companies to pay out about $11 billion to farmers for crop losses this year. The industry had brought in $11.8 billion in premiums, he said, which means “this will not be a big year of the industry in underwriting gains.” But he added, “They’ve had a good run. I hope they saved some money.