DES MOINES — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said critics of the farm bill’s crop insurance program are “unfair” and don’t know farming.
“I don’t think they understand it,” Vilsack said about the five-year, $956 billion package that President Barack Obama signed this month.
Vilsack, in a 20-minute telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Wednesday with the Lee Enterprises Des Moines Bureau, called it “progressive” legislation that puts money into research, opens new markets, focuses on conservation efforts and creates new job opportunities.
One of the most controversial pieces of the 2014 Farm Bill is a move away from direct government subsidy payments to farmers and increased government backing of crop insurance programs.
Critics, such as U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., say the government supports through the crop insurance program are too rich and undermine the free market. In some estimates, the taxpayer-backed crop insurance programs would all but guarantee farming income never drops below 86 percent of income based on the highest-profit years.
“Farming is a risky business, and we try to reduce the risk to a reasonable level,” Vilsack said.
He compared crop insurance to the insurance a small manufacturer might get for their facility. If that business is destroyed by an act of nature, the manufacturer can rely on those policies. He said it’s the same thing if a weather system destroys the harvest.
“Mother Nature comes along, and (the farmer) is totally out of business, through no fault of his own. He did everything right,” Vilsack said, adding cost of coverage is a consideration. “Government pays for crop insurance that, otherwise, a farmer would not be able to afford.”
The former Iowa governor also said he wasn’t too concerned about reports that farm income is projected to be down by as much as 27 percent this year.
“What we have in farming, is we’re coming off a record year in profits,” he said, likening the dip to a baseball player whose batting average dropped from .370 to .320.
“I think his team would still be pretty happy to have him,” he said. “It’s all relative.”
Asked when he next plans to visit the state, Vilsack said he has a trip planned to see his grandchildren, but nothing political planned, even though he supports U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley’s bid for U.S. Senate.
“I’m sure as we get closer to the election, we will,” he said. “So far, the timing just hasn’t worked out.”