By RACHEL LANE
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When referring to farming risk, weather is typically the first thing people consider, but USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack wants to remind farmers across the country that some risks are manmade.
He was keynote speaker at the annual USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum last week. After the flooding in 2011 and the drought in 2012, this year’s forum focused on managing risk in the 21st century.
Double-cropping and cover-cropping were methods Vilsack brought up. The idea is of course for farmers to plant two types of crops, with the same growing season, on the same land. The crops have different needs, such as different amounts of water during different months.
Vilsack said double-cropping limits the impact of a drought on farmers; however, many who do double-crop and were affected by last year’s drought had insurance claims denied. Vilsack said this is a manmade issue that needs to be fixed.
“We intend to develop an atlas about multi-cropping across the nation,” he said. The atlas would take into account different types of farming, such as organic and geography, so it would assist all farmers. “We need you to encourage those in Congress to help us help you.”
Congress has still not passed a new farm bill, a safety net many farmers depend on, Vilsack said. Its lack means there are not the same opportunities for disaster assistance that were available in the past. “This is a risk that can be resolved by Congress by doing its job and passing the farm bill,” Vilsack said.
Other manmade, controllable risks include other legislation. Vilsack said something needs to be done to stop the national sequester from going into effect March 1. The only thing that will stop this is Congress passing some form of a budget.
As it is written, the sequester requires cuts to almost every line-item in the USDA budget at a flat rate of over 5 percent. With limited ability to move the budget cuts to different departments, research for improved technology, financial assistance to farmers and important personnel will be cut because there will be no other option, Vilsack explained.
“It’s a bad, bad policy. (I think) the assumption was folks would reach a compromise rather than let it go into effect,” he said.
While cuts in workers at the USDA are likely, he said he has a council working with different agencies to research ways farmers can be directly assisted to limit the effects of flooding or drought on overall yield. From better irrigation systems to genetically modified seeds (GMO), technology plays a big part in managing risk, he said.
“Farmers used GMOs, and that’s why we managed to get through the drought,” he said.
There are also concerns about GMOs and food labeling on a national and international level. These are preventing the export of some crops. If countries could agree on labeling needs, based on science, it would open more markets for United States farmers and ranchers, helping minimize the risk of not selling crops, Vilsack said.
Japan and Hong Kong are expected to announce new positions on previously raised objections for trading with the United States, he added.
In addition to manmade risks, nature creates problems beyond just weather. The USDA is working on plans to reduce pest and disease interference by helping farmers learn about soil health. Vilsack said he supports any technological advances to mitigate risk because he wants to offer security to rural America.
“The long-term security and safety of this country depends on us,” he said.
Joseph Glauber, USDA chief economist, spoke about agricultural and foreign trade outlook for the coming year, based on weather.
“Rainfall one year has no effect on rainfall the following year,” he said. But, last year’s drought has created effects farmers are already feeling, such as the cost of feed increasing and likely remaining high until summer, when he expects to see record production of corn and soybeans.
“We’ll be watching weather carefully. We’re expecting normal weather (and) higher yields, which should result in moderate feed prices,” Glauber said.
For the second year in a row, China is the top exporting market for U.S. farmers, he added. In the past several years, there has even been an increase in demand for American cotton.
For years, the United States has been the No. 1 exporter of corn, but with the low yield last year, Glauber said, coupled with the ethanol requirements this year, it seems likely Brazil will be the No. 1 exporter of corn this year. He said this is a temporary condition, as U.S. corn rebounds.