Railcar dearth, conservation easements and FSA modernization

Railcar dearth, conservation easements and FSA modernization

Vilsack hits on current agricultural concerns, plugs new conservation program. Dearth of railcars leads to major farmer worries. How is FSA modernization shaping up?  

Several months ago, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the formation of the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), which basically combines a number of easement and conservation programs.

“We were anxious to see the reaction to the combination effort and we weren’t disappointed,” said Vilsack during a Sept. 8 press call. The program will focus on “water quality, wetland storage capacity, habitat production as well as trying to provide assistance for land at high risk of development and erosion. We received over 1,450 applications … totaling up to $546 million that would cover 345,000 acres. We were able to identify 380 easements that qualified under the program” worth $328 million and covering 129,000 acres.

“This is another indication of a farm bill focused on partnerships,” said Vilsack. “In this case, it’s between landowners and the NRCS-USDA providing assistance … to preserve and conserve land.”

The new approach to conservation is markedly different than past programs. “This basically creates the flexibility for folks to put their own ideas together and then seek assistance and funding. The fact that we received over 1,450 applications shows this is a popular program.”

The USDA says this year's ACEP projects will:

  • Improve water quality and wetland storage capacity in the California Bay Delta region.
  • Reduce flooding along the Mississippi and Red rivers.
  • Provide and protect habitat for threatened, endangered and at-risk species including sage grouse, bog turtles, Florida panthers, Louisiana black bear, and whooping cranes to recover populations and reduce regulatory burdens.
  • Protect prime agricultural land under high risk of development in urban areas to help secure the nation's food supply and jobs in the agricultural sector.

Railcar issues, FSA modernization

Earlier in the day, Vilsack met with President Obama and Vice-President Biden. The meeting, he reported, “was an opportunity for us to give a briefing on technology efforts for Farm Service Agency offices as we modernize them.”

The FSA modernization is ongoing, said Vilsack, “but we now have the capacity for a producer to go into a county office and secure records concerning funding operations in that county and others. In the past, that producer would have to go to multiple county offices to secure records county-by-county” if they farmed in multiple counties. “Now, they only have to go to a single office. That’s an important convenience.

“Also, this year, we’re putting the finishing touches on additional modernization so we can keep a good eye on the integrity of the payments to ensure we’re recording and reporting them accurately.”

Future efforts at the FSA, said Vilsack, will mean “streamlined acreage reporting. That’s the next big challenge.”

Also on the agenda were ongoing problems with U.S. farmers and grain merchants -- many in the midst of harvest – having trouble securing railcars to transport their crops. The railcars, farmers complain, are being used to transport materials used in support of a booming oil industry while their needs are given secondary status. “We’re concerned in the upper Midwest about the lack of rail capacity to haul grain in light of a bumper crop,” said Vilsack.

A study done prior to the 2014 harvest concluded that due to the railcar shortage and grain price drops due to oversupply, North Dakota farmers alone could lose more than $160 million. Without adequate railcar transport, farmers fear there will be no storage space for their crops.

“Hopefully the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which is asking for reports (from the rail industry), will keep an eye on this and make sure … these railroads will be prepared for a significant harvest.”

The railcar situation also allowed Vilsack to promote the need for a “concerted effort” by Congress to address U.S. infrastructure needs.

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