Noem challenges ag secretary

Farm Forum

Rep. Kristi Noem challenged Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on how his department is dealing with producers in the wake of the federal spending reduction known as the sequester.

Noem, R-S.D., questioned Vilsack, a Democrat who is the former governor of Iowa, during a House Agriculture Committee meeting on March 5.

Noem, herself a rancher from rural Castlewood, serves on the committee.

She cited an email from Charles Brown, an official with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office in Raleigh, N.C., which asked “if there was any latitude” in how to spread the sequester cuts across the region to lessen the impacts on fish inspections.

Brown said he was told by Agriculture Department officials that the sequester would prohibit any help from being offered to people and businesses.

“We have gone on record with a notification to Congress and whoever else that ‘APHIS would eliminate assistance to producers in 24 states in managing wildlife damage to the aquaculture industry, unless they provide funding to cover the costs,’ ” the email stated, according to a release from Noem’s office. “So it is our opinion that however you manage that reduction, you need to make sure you are not contradicting what we said the impact would be.”

Noem said that seemed to be harming producers in order to make a political point.

“Would you agree reducing the impact to producers should be a priority?” she asked Vilsack.

“Yes,” the secretary responded.

But he said while he had not read the email Noem was referring to in her question, his department is trying to deal with the cuts in an efficient manner.

“If we have flexibility, we’re going to try to use it to make sure we use sequester in the most equitable and least disruptive way,” he said. “There are some circumstances, and we’ve talked a lot about the meat inspection, where we do not have that flexibility because there are so few accounts.”

The Obama administration earlier has stated that beef, pork and poultry numbers could drop because slaughterhouse inspectors have been furloughed due to the sequester, which went into effect on March 1, with $85 billion in spending cuts proposed over the next several months.

Noem said the email made it sound like the administration was sacrificing flexibility in order to justify dire predictions.

“I’m hopeful that isn’t an agenda that’s been put forward,” she said.