WASHINGTON — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack faced questions on how his agency is doling out emergency pandemic aid and fostering collaboration with historically Black colleges during a Thursday hearing before the House Agriculture Committee.
The committee’s chairperson, U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., asked Vilsack for “critical updates on the implementation of pandemic relief programs, including the American Rescue Plan, and the status of disaster assistance.”
Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa who also served as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, said the Department of Agriculture is currently working to distribute money provided by the American Rescue Plan to farmers who have suffered during the pandemic.
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., asked Vilsack how some $10 billion in disaster relief for extreme weather is being distributed.
Vilsack said about $750 million went to the livestock industry and that the agency is using crop data to figure out how much in payments should go to farmers in the grain industry.
“The goal here is to try to get these payments out this spring,” he said.
Republicans on the committee aired concerns about hiring problems, regulations and the supply chain. Austin Scott said that the chemical industry in his state has reported difficulty with distributing materials and has struggled with labor shortages.
The top GOP lawmaker on the committee, U.S. Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, R-15th District., said that he was also concerned about labor shortages and supply chain issues.
“Our communities are looking for solutions, and they don’t need regulatory burdens,” he said.
Thompson added that he felt there was a disconnect between the Biden administration and farmers not only in his state but across the country.
“We are concerned by the lack of truck drivers,” Vilsack said, adding that USDA is working with the Labor Department to speed up the process to get apprentices certified to operate semi trucks.
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., pressed Vilsack on USDA’s commitment to fund and work with historically Black Land Grant Universities.
“Rural communities continue to face challenges that need to be addressed to achieve growth,” she said.
Adams said that 1890 Land Grant Universities play an important role in teaching, reaching out to those rural communities and conducting research in agriculture science. She asked if USDA could better partner with those institutions.
Vilsack said he recently had a meeting with the Council of Presidents representing Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
“First order of business is to make sure there is an understanding in the HBCUs of the extraordinary scope of the programs that we have at USDA and to encourage greater collaboration,” he said.
Vilsack said that USDA allocated $21.8 million to HBCUs to fund 58 projects “to expand their reach into the community.” He said that USDA also awarded $12 million to Hispanic Serving Institutions.
He added that the agency is also investing in research and development that examines the best practices for addressing climate change in farming.
U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., criticized USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration enforcement efforts, which aim to provide fair marketing practices for agricultural products.
Rouzer was critical of USDA application of GIPSA regulations to the meat and poultry industries, arguing that “new rules and regulations add to cost.”
“Farmers deserve a fair share in the marketplace and they don’t get a fair shake,” Vilsack said. “They have the rug pulled out from them on many occasions. This is about fundamental fairness.”
Vilsack said those regulations are a part of USDA’s business and oversight and are necessary because 85% of beef processing belongs to four companies, 70% of pork processing belongs to four companies and 50% of poultry processing belongs to four companies.
“It’s simply too concentrated. There’s not enough capacity and there’s not enough competition,” he said.
“Frankly, if we had more competition we’d give consumers more choice and if consumers had more choice, then I guarantee that’s also going to impact and affect price in a positive way.”
Rep. Shontel Brown, D-Ohio, said she was concerned about the rise in food insecurity due to the coronavirus pandemic, particularly among Black and Latino families.
“Our communities cannot flourish when so many people — especially our students — still lack regular access to nutritious food,” she said.
Brown asked what USDA, which runs multiple nutrition programs in schools and for low-income families, was doing to reduce food waste in the U.S.
Vilsack said that the agency is working with schools, grocery stores, universities and food processing companies “to find creative ways to deal with food waste.”
He added that the agency is preparing to host a series of webinars this year to look into the issue and to study how other countries are handling this issue.
“Thirty percent of what’s grown is wasted,” he said.
Vilsack said some solutions could include encouraging restaurants to give people choices on their portion sizes to try to limit food waste.