It is official. Sequestration will occur, but exactly how that will impact USDA and the services it provides is still unclear. At commodity Classic in Orlando, FL on Friday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlined the challenges he faces in operating a department with less money than they had in 2009. Vilsack said he has very few options when it comes to operating the meat inspection system, “By law, we cannot move funds from one area to another, and 87% of the Food Safety and Inspection Service goes to pay food inspectors and the people who support the food inspectors, with only 5% going for operating expenses and the remainder for labs and testing.” In addition, he said federal regulations limit the number of days each individual can be furloughed to 22 days. “So, even if you furloughed everyone else for 22 days, you would still have to furlough inspectors.”
As for FSA and NRCS, Vilsack said within the next few weeks furlough notices will be sent out, “At NRCS, we are not filling spots so we will have 400 vacancies. So there may be offices where people are simply not there.” He was less clear on how other farm programs would be affected by reduction in funds.
Vilsack said many other decisions on USDA operations have not been made yet. He did indicate, however, that the Agriculture Census may not be completed due to sequestration. He also indicated that many land grant universities who receive grants from USDA would see the level of those funds reduced. He also stated that rent assistance for rural housing programs and funding for the WIC program would be impacted in the “very near future.”
The Secretary excused himself and the Obama administration from any responsibility for sequestration and said all this could be solved if Congress would pass a budget and a Farm Bill, “It is in their hands to solve this. We have to implement the process, they created, they passed, they approved. We are going to try and implement it as equitably as possible.”
In his speech to the more than 3,000 farmers attending Commodity Classic, he referred to sequestration very little. Instead he focused on the need for agriculture to tell its story to the non-farm public. He praised the producers for their productivity and innovation. He pledged that USDA would continue to work on programs to help agriculture adapt to climate change.
Records were set at Commodity Classic, which concluded over the weekend, with 6,100 attending: 3,305 of which were farmers and over 1000 first time attendees.