Vilsack: Farm bill uncertainty could hurt rural economy

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U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says Congress needs to work quickly to reach a compromise on the farm bill. Otherwise, farmers may hold back their financial muscle.

Vilsack made the comments at the Rural Futures Conference in Lincoln, Neb. where local leaders and development experts discussed ways to create jobs and regain population in farm communities. It’s old-hat for the Agriculture Secretary; he has been advocating for a new five-year farm bill at public appearances for the last two years.

Agriculture has been a bright spot for the economy in the Midwest asmany farmers have used recent profits to purchase new equipment or expand their operations. But the farm bill, which guides national policy on food and farming, lapsed weeks ago. That’s left long-term policy unclear.

While the House and Senate negotiate over a replacement for the old legislation, farmers are likely to be more careful with their cash and Vilsack said that could cause a ripple effect on rural economies.

“Almost to a person they tell me they have stopped expansion ideas, they have stopped purchasing, because they’re just not certain what the policies are going to be,” Vilsack said. “Until they’re certain what the policies are going to be they’re not going to make those additional investments.”

The long, arduous process of getting the farm bill through Congress, Vilsack said, is a headwind for farmers and ranchers – especially ranchers who have encountered historic disasters in the last two years ranging from blizzard to drought.

As I reported last week, ranchers in Nebraska and South Dakota lost thousands of cattle in an early October blizzard, but the normal disaster relief programs in the farm bill are out of commission. Vilsack said help will be on the way once a new farm bill is passed.

“If we get a farm bill, and when we get a farm bill, I strongly suspect those provisions will be in the final version and we’ll be in a position to implement those as quickly as possible,” Vilsack said.

The conference committee made up of lawmakers from  the House and Senate has been meeting to finalize the farm bill, but the legislators still have to find a way to bridge a big gap on cuts to food stamps.

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