Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) held a full committee hearing Thursday with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack as the sole panelist.  The purpose of the hearing was to review the state of the rural economy. With the recent enactment of the Agricultural Act of 2014, progress on implementing the law was the primary topic of discussion with committee members asking Secretary Vilsack for an update on USDA’s efforts.

Committee members asked questions on the full spectrum of areas covered under the 2014 farm bill and many of the questions had to do with timing and implementing the law.  Ranking Member Rep. Collin Peterson  (D-MN) asked a  question on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and Secretary Vilsack responded by saying that “the Agriculture Department is still uncertain whether it will open up the Conservation Reserve Program to more farmers this year after Congress lowered the cap on acreage that can be idled under it.”   Peterson pressed Vilsack on whether USDA would hold a new sign-up for farmers who want to be paid to idle environmentally sensitive land. Vilsack reponded  “as you well know, the amount of acres available in CRP has been somewhat restricted by congressional action, so we’re in the process of taking a look at precisely where we are relative with the continuous sign-up.”

Congress capped the popular conservation program, which pays farmers to idle environmentally sensitive land for 10 years at a time, at 32 million acres in the 2008 farm bill– a reduction from 39 million acres. But the authors of the five-year 2014 farm bill cut $6 billion from the conservation title this year, and that included a sharp reduction for CRP.

The program, under the limitations of the new farm bill, can only pay to keep 27.5 million acres idle this year, 26 million next year, 25 million in 2016, and 24 million in 2017 and 2018. One of the main consequences of reducing the CRP cap, Vilsack said, will be USDA becoming choosier about the land it allows into the program. “Because of the limitations, in the future, we’re going to have to be quite targeted–quite focused,” he said. “We think we have some possibility in the continuous program, but at this point, I wouldn’t say we have finally made a decision relative to a general sign-up.”

Peterson, one of the four main architects of the 2014 farm bill that was signed into law in February, told Vilsack that he should nonetheless hurry the process and hold a sign-up for CRP because the program still has a couple million acres to fill. Farmers should have the option to idle their land this year before they have to make a decision about planting,  Peterson said.

Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR), chairman of the Livestock, Rural Development and Credit subcommittee, asked the Secretary why the GIPSA rescissions that were passed in the 2013 Omnibus were not published as a final rule.  The three recissions were:  applicability to pullets and breeders, the definition of “suspension of delivery,” and 90-day criteria.  The Secretary responded that he would have to get back to Rep. Crawford.

Several members questioned Vilsack about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to define its jurisdiction over “waters of the United States.”  “I get a lot of complaints from my farmers in Georgia about the navigable waters issue,” said David Scott (D-GA). “I hope you will do more. They cannot run their farms in an efficient way going one day to the next not knowing the definition of ‘navigable waters.’”  The Secretary said the EPA proposal reaffirms permitting exemptions for agriculture, including agricultural discharges, maintenance of drains and ditches, wastewater treatment, and artificial ponds.  He also noted that EPA identified 56 conservation practices used in agriculture that would not require permitting. “Then they don’t have to worry about notifying anybody or getting a permit,” Vilsack said, adding that that list may be expanded with additional conservation practices over time.

Secretary Vilsack also announced that USDA launched a website that day that provides details on implementing the farm bill  and that next week funding will be announced for the Foreign Agricultural Service,  the Market Access Program, and Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program.