WASHINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack understands the challenges in drafting a farm bill.

Although he has never served in Congress, Vilsack watched legislators work on the 2014 farm bill as the agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama. Vilsack led the Department of Agriculture for all but the final week of the Obama administration.

Much like the 113th Congress, the current Congress is split; Democrats control the Senate as Republicans control the House of Representatives, albeit with slimmer majorities than the previous meeting.

“Make no mistake: You folks have a very difficult job,” Vilsack told members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Thursday.

“Crafting a farm bill is not an easy task, and it’s particularly difficult in this day and age.”

Vilsack appeared before senators as the committee asked Vilsack about the department’s work and effectiveness under the current farm bill.

Input from Vilsack and the Department of Agriculture is essential for lawmakers drafting the next farm bill. Members of both congressional chambers are reviewing the current sweeping law and its provisions related to programs related to nutrition, commodities and rural development among other issues.

Congress last approved a farm bill in December 2018 when Sonny Perdue was agriculture secretary under then-President Donald Trump. The current law will expire at the end of September, although lawmakers could extend the statute while working on the legislative proposal.

Sen. John Boozman, the committee’s top Republican, has repeatedly raised concerns about challenges facing rural Arkansas and America. Population in 53 Arkansas counties declined between the 2010 and 2020 censuses, with the decrease concentrated in the state’s rural counties.

The Department of Agriculture has predicted agricultural imports will eclipse exports during the current fiscal year, with the United States bringing in $14.5 billion worth of commodities more than it sells.

During his opening remarks, Boozman additionally referenced the threat of rising farm debt, which officials forecast will reach $535 billion this year. The Rogers senator cited increasing production costs, tight supply chains and changing interest rates as the leading issues affecting farmers.

Boozman also noted farm programs have not kept pace with modern agriculture needs, mentioning the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and international issues on American farms.

“At the end of this farm bill process, I would like to go back to rural Arkansans and tell them that we put policies and programs in place that will improve their quality of life and give their children and their neighbors’ children reason to return home,” he said. “In my mind, ensuring this country has a vibrant and economically sustainable agricultural economy is key to accomplishing that goal.”

Boozman and Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., emphasized the importance of the partnership with the Department of Agriculture in the coming months as lawmakers work on the next farm bill, but Boozman expressed concerns about the department’s responsiveness to lawmakers’ questions.

Boozman recognized officials worked with lawmakers on legislation affecting summer school meal programs and credit programs during the last Congress, yet he additionally stated Thursday he did not receive a response to an October inquiry until Wednesday.

“We just want to make sure that they’re going to be as responsive as they can be,” Boozman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after the hearing.

Vilsack assured Boozman his agency will provide “timely and effective technical assistance” on the next farm bill. He said the agency is “more than happy to provide information” to Boozman on agricultural questions.

“I would ask of you, senator, and your colleagues that when you make requests for information, that you really just simply target what you really want and not provide a laundry list of things that could be considered to be somewhat of a fishing expedition,” he said. “I think that will help us be more helpful to you in providing technical assistance.”

Boozman pushed back against Vilack’s use of “fishing expedition,” contending senators need to have any questions answered.

“We’ve got 50 outstanding questions. We’ve got a bunch of technical assistance that people are trying to write bills from, and again, we simply are not getting the information,” the senator said.

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