USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack Tuesday spoke with media to announce the recipients of 33 Conservation Innovation Grants, reiterating the importance of conservation and its relation to pending farm policy.
The grants are focused largely on improving soil health, conserving energy, managing nutrients and maintaining wildlife habitats alongside productive lands.
The awards total $13.3 million. Six of the approved grants support conservation technologies and approaches to help farmers and ranchers who historically have not had equal access to agricultural programs because of race or ethnicity, or who have limited resources, or who are beginning farmers and ranchers.
Vilsack said the grants activate problem-solving and are "critical for developing and demonstrating new ideas for conservation on America's private lands." The Secretary, however, also emphasized that such programs are only functional and feasible with the help of sound public policy.
"The farm bill in the past has provided us tools in which to further our conservation efforts, and in the 2008 Farm Bill it created the conservation innovation grant program," Vilsack explained, noting that such programs allow USDA to help producers invest in their land and mitigate drought conditions.
While he said conservation programs will not suffer an immediate strain if a new farm bill is not authorized immediately after the 2008 extension expires Sept. 30, Vilsack noted that bigger problems could appear long term.
"Obviously the authority and the ability to continue investing in conservation is directly related to passage of a five-year program," Vilsack said. "Farmers and ranchers and producers in this country need the certainty of knowing what the programs are going to be and what the levels of appropriation are going to be."
Specifically, Vilsack noted that programs like Working Lands for Wildlife or National Water Quality Initiative will not have continued investments.
Other problems exist without a farm bill, such as the lack of a disaster assistance program for livestock producers and potential for Brazilian trade retaliation. Vilsack said he also fears that legislators may be tempted to not reinvest direct payment savings back into a new safety net.
"The opportunity that congress could essentially take resources out of the existing farm programs, i.e. direct payments, and not provide a sufficient flexibility or allow reinvestment of some of those savings back into a new farm bill … would make it even more difficult to get a farm bill passed," Vilsack said.
A major hold-up in the farm bill negotiations has been the deep proposed cuts to the nutrition provisions in a split farm bill that the House initiated earlier this summer.
That situation had many Democratic legislators concerned that the $40 billion in cuts to the nutrition title go too far. It's a problem Vilsack said the House may potentially address next week, though leadership has yet to confirm that it is on the schedule.
Once that has been addressed, Vilsack said the House should be ready to appoint conferees and reconcile differences between the House and Senate farm bills.
"Next week, we're told, that they will have a vote on nutrition programs. Then they promise to appoint conferees. If that happens we will see how quickly folks get to work," Vilsack said.
"We at USDA are prepared to help and assist in those areas where there are differences in policy to work creatively to try to bridge those differences as quickly as possible."