U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and a pheasant hunter, discussed the future of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) with the Star Tribune this week:
Q Is there a chance CRP will disappear in the next Farm Bill, assuming we get one?
A I don't think so. There is reasonable likelihood the number of acres will decline a bit over time, but I don't see a total elimination of the program. It's too popular and too important.
Q The bill passed by the Senate would lower CRP acreage to 25 million from about 30 million. Could it be cut further?
A Some will argue for significantly larger cuts. That's a big issue. When you increase habitat, you increase hunting and fishing opportunities and economic activities in these small rural towns.
Q Record-high commodity prices have, in some cases, made programs like CRP financially less attractive. Can the government pay enough to attract landowners to these programs?
A We did raise rental rates, and they are competitive. We saw robust interest in the general signups. But I think we'll always be challenged to make CRP attractive.
Q Is there bipartisan support for CRP, and is the current logjam due mostly to financial concerns?
A There is bipartisan support for CRP, but Republican leaders have proposed much steeper cuts than Democrats or moderate Republicans. And they didn't want to debate this before the election.
Q Some fear the decline in CRP acres will spell an overall decline in wildlife habitat.
A If you focus on one program, you may draw the wrong conclusion. I think the best is yet to come.
Q What are the chances Congress will act during the lame duck session after the election and before Jan. 1, when the new Congress takes over?
A I'm hopeful, but concerned. As difficult as any Farm Bill is, it's more complicated this time. They allowed it to be wrapped up in a larger conversation of tax policy and deficit reduction. That makes it much more difficult.
Q Do you plan to pheasant hunt this fall?
A We tragically lost our dog, Rosie [a black Lab], this year, and my wife [Christie Vilsack] is running for Congress [in Iowa]. My October is booked. After that, we'll see.