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Ag Secretary's Minnesota visit ushers in new era for U.S. farm programs

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After a visit by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to St. Paul, Minnesota farmers have a better idea of what their future holds – at least when it comes to how they'll deal with the federal government.

As the Pioneer Press reports, Vilsack was in town this week to talk about two new programs providing farmers financial coverage when crop yields and revenues are down.

The so-called safety net programs, Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), are built on the ashes of the old system, which funneled cash to growers regardless of their needs. That direct payment system was the subject of much controversy and was a casualty of the 2014 Farm Bill, which was passed in January after lengthy debate in congress.

The new system works a little like an Affordable Care Act health insurance exchange, in that it is an online affair. Beginning Monday, farmers can log on to a USDA website where they can pick whichever of the two new programs they feel best suits their needs.

Both are designed to protect farmers in years when revenue is off because of a bad crop or low commodity prices. WCCO reports current prices for corn and soybeans are low enough that the programs may get a workout this year.

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One of the programs – the ARC option – is a localized approach to farmer subsidies, doling out payments when crop revenues fall between 76% and 86% of a county's benchmark revenue, according to the Agri-Pulse news service.

The PLC program, on the other hand, will disperse cash when the price of a crop is less than the USDA's reference price for that crop, according to the Farm Service Agency website.

The site will feature online tools allowing crop producers to plug in information about their farms, spitting back data which Vilsack says will help them "make an informed decision between these programs."

U.S. Representative Collin Peterson, who represents Minnesota's 7th District, made it clear during the Vilsack appearance that any comparison to the "Obamacare" health insurance marketplace doesn't worry him. He tells the Fargo Forum he expects no problems like those encountered by the federal online insurance exchange during its troubled rollout, Forum News Service reports.

While the new system requires a bigger time investment from farmers than the old farm subsidies program, Vilsack tells the Star Tribune it's a pragmatic step in the right direction.

“These programs don’t cover every loss and they don’t cover all losses, but it does provide the safety net and the cushion to ensure that we keep people on the land and keep people in business,” he said

Agri-Pulse writes that the USDA hasn't settled on a specific deadline for farmers to sign up by, as Vilsack wants to give growers plenty of time to determine which program suits them best, and weed out any possible technological issues that may arise.

Franken's Farming Fortunes

Vilsack was hosted by Senator Al Franken for his Minnesota visit, as the lawmaker is tying his political fortunes to the 2014 Farm Bill comprised of the new "safety net" programs and other measures. He's up for re-election in November.

According to the Associated Press, Franken has been selling his involvement in the Farm Bill, passed and signed into law this year after many delays, as a major first-term accomplishment.

His Republican opponent, Mike McFadden, sees Vilsack's visit as a sign of Franken's ties to the administration of a president whose popularity has been fading.

"It's a little bit of show," Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey told the AP of Franken's appearance with Vilsack. "And he probably needs it because he's weak in greater Minnesota."

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