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Opening Statement of Thomas J. Vilsack Before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture – Remarks as Delivered

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2022:

Thank you, Madam Chair. I certainly appreciate the opportunity to be here this morning and I appreciate the attention of the committee members as well.

Let me start with a very important and, I think, significant statistic about the ag appropriations process: non-Defense discretionary spending over the last eight or nine years has grown by 27.4% across all Departments while the USDA’s discretionary budget has grown about 14.3%, roughly half. Essentially what this has done is it's created some challenges with reference to the Department.

I appreciate the Chair’s commenting on two of the three issues that I'm going to discuss today. You mentioned the issue of staffing. Madam Chair, I will tell you this is a serious issue for us. When you look at our nutrition programs, we have seen a doubling of the amount of resources that goes through those programs, but we've seen the workforce at FNS be cut by 25%.

When we talk about Rural Development, the mission area that is in charge of 3,142 rural counties across the United States, 15% of America's population, roughly 75% of America's landmass, deals with $30 to $40 billion in loans and grants each and every year. It oversees a significant portion of the $230 billion loan portfolio we have at USDA, but it's short about 500 workers.

When we take a look at the backroom operations of USDA, the Departmental administration, we've seen a nearly doubling of procurement responsibilities in that department, but the workforce has been cut by 43%.

So I think it's essential and necessary for us to talk about the staffing levels at USDA. It's also necessary for us to talk about research.

While health care research has understandably grown significantly by as much as 400% over the last decade, research in the ag area has flatlined after you take inflation into consideration. At one point in time, it represented 4.3% of the overall non-Defense research, allocations and appropriations for the federal government. Today it is 2.3%. So it's been literally cut in half.

This is despite the fact that for every dollar we invest in agricultural research, there's a return investment of $17. I would say, and most would say, that's a pretty good return on investment. So our hope would be that as we talk about the budget, we focus on the important role of agricultural research.

And you mentioned rural housing. That is also a challenge. We appreciate the additional support and help that this committee has provided in this space, but the reality is that we continue to have struggle to maintain adequate housing.

We're going to see over time a significant reduction in the number of units. As loans are paid off, essentially what happens is those units convert from being subsidized to being available at market rates. So we're encouraging this committee to take a look at ways in which we could decouple the interest rates and the mortgage and the loan from the subsidization so that we would continue to be able to provide additional units and also invest in the rehab of existing units so that the housing is not only available but also decent.

In the time that I have remaining, Madam Chair, let me talk about something that's really of concern to me that is a bit outside the purview of this particular budget committee, but it's something that I think we all ought to be concerned about.

There are [24,673] farm families in America today that are on the brink. [24,673] farm families that are either delinquent in their loans to USDA, are bankrupt or are pending foreclosure. This is a serious issue and I'm pretty confident that every single member of this committee probably has a number of those [24,673] farmers living in their states.

It's important and necessary for us to put a spotlight on the challenges. Now these are people who have borrowed from USDA or who have had a guaranteed loan from USDA, which means that they haven't been able on their own to go to a commercial bank and be able to secure financing. So these are folks who need help. They need assistance.

I represented farmers during the 1980s as a small-town lawyer, I can tell you the pain. I can tell you the stress. I can tell you the decisions that folks make under these circumstances. I can tell you the very tragic decisions that they make under these circumstances. So I would hope that as we talk about the future of agriculture in this country, that we don't lose sight of those [24,673] farm families.

They deserve our attention. They deserve some creative thought about how we may be able to assist them during this pandemic-stricken time. And I sincerely hope that we can work collaboratively together in a bipartisan way to make sure that they have a hopeful future as opposed to one that is currently stress-filled today.

I see the Ranking Member is here at so I'm going to stop talking.


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