Agriculture Secretary insists on pandemic relief funds for farmers

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was asked about how his agency distributes emergency pandemic relief to farmers and encourages collaboration with historically black colleges during a hearing Thursday before the House agriculture committee.

Committee chairman David Scott, a Georgia Democrat, asked Vilsack for “critical updates on the implementation of pandemic relief programs, including the U.S. bailout, and the state of the ‘disaster relief’.

Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who also served as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, said the Department of Agriculture is currently working to distribute the money provided by the US bailout to farmers who suffered during the pandemic.

Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican from Georgia, asked Vilsack how some $10 billion in extreme weather disaster relief was distributed.

Vilsack said about $750 million has gone to the livestock industry, and the agency uses crop data to determine how much payment should go to farmers in the grain industry.

“The goal here is to try to get those payments this spring,” he said.

Republicans on the committee have expressed concerns about hiring, regulatory and supply chain issues. Scott said his state’s chemical industry has reported difficulty distributing materials and has struggled with labor shortages.

The top GOP lawmaker on the committee, Glenn “GT” Thompson, (R-Pa.), said he’s also concerned about labor shortages and supply chain issues.

“Our communities are looking for solutions, and they don’t need regulatory constraints,” he said.

Thompson added that he felt there was a disconnect between the Biden administration and farmers not just in his state but across the country.

“We are concerned about the shortage of truck drivers,” Vilsack said, adding that the USDA is working with the Labor Department to expedite the process of getting apprentices certified to drive tractor-trailers.

Representative Alma Adams, (DN.C.), emphasized the USDA’s commitment to funding and working with Black Land Grant universities historically.

“Rural communities continue to face challenges that must be addressed to achieve growth,” she said.

Adams said the 1890 Land Grant Universities play an important role in education, outreach to these rural communities, and agricultural science research. She asked if the USDA could better partner with these institutions.

Vilsack said he recently had a meeting with the Council of Presidents representing historically black colleges and universities.

“The first order of business is to make sure HBCUs understand the extraordinary scope of programs we have at USDA and encourage closer collaboration,” he said.

Vilsack said the USDA has allocated $21.8 million to HBCUs to fund 58 projects “to expand their reach in the community.” He said the USDA also awarded $12 million to institutions serving Hispanics.

He added that the agency is also investing in research and development that examines best practices for tackling climate change in agriculture.

Representative David Rouzer, a Republican from North Carolina, criticized enforcement efforts by the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, which seek to provide fair marketing practices for agricultural products.

Rouzer criticized the USDA’s application of GIPSA regulations to the meat and poultry industries, arguing that “new rules and regulations increase costs”.

“Farmers deserve a fair share of the market and they’re not being fairly shaken,” Vilsack said. “They got the rug pulled several times. It is a matter of fundamental fairness.

Our communities are looking for solutions, and they don’t need regulatory burdens

– Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pennsylvania

Vilsack said these regulations are part of USDA operations and oversight and are necessary because 85% of beef processing is owned by four companies, 70% of pork processing is owned by four companies, and 50% of poultry processing is owned by four companies.

“It’s just too focused. There is not enough capacity and there is not enough competition,” he said.

“Frankly, if we had more competition, we would give consumers more choice and if consumers had more choice, then I guarantee you that will also have an impact and affect prices in a positive way.”

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Rep. Shontel Brown, (D-Ohio), said she’s concerned about increased food insecurity due to the coronavirus pandemic, especially among Black and Latino families.

“Our communities cannot thrive when so many people – especially our students – still do not have regular access to nutritious food,” she said.

Brown asked what the USDA, which runs several nutrition programs in schools and for low-income families, is doing to reduce food waste in the United States.

Vilsack said the agency works with schools, grocery stores, universities and food processing companies “to find creative ways to manage food waste.”

He added that the agency is preparing to hold a series of webinars this year to examine the issue and study how other countries are dealing with this issue.

“Thirty percent of what is grown is wasted,” he said.

Vilsack said some solutions could be to encourage restaurants to give people choice in their portion sizes to try to limit food waste.

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