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U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry, today released the following opening statement at the hearing titled “Implementing the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 ,” featuring Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Stabenow’s statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It’s great to be back in our committee room for our first hearing this Congress.

First, I’d like to recognize our new members Senator Durbin and Senator Braun. And I’d like to thank Secretary Perdue for joining us today.

Mr. Secretary, when you were here with us last spring, we were hard at work drafting the 2018 Farm Bill. By the end of the year, we passed a strong and historic final bill with the support of 87 Senators and 369 House members. I thank Chairman Roberts for being an outstanding leader and partner in that effort.

Now, our farmers, families, and rural communities are counting on the USDA to implement the Farm Bill quickly and effectively. This is especially true in my home state of Michigan, where agriculture supports one in four jobs.
My state is a top producer of specialty crops like tart cherries and asparagus, but we are also a major exporter of soybeans and dairy products. We have farmers who sell fresh, local food to their neighbors – and farmers who market their products around the world. We have burgeoning urban farms in cities like Detroit – and thriving small towns surrounded by multi-generation family-owned operations.

In Michigan, we know the strength of our agricultural economy is rooted in our diversity. The 2018 Farm Bill celebrates that diversity and creates new opportunities for farmers and families all across the country. I’m eager to see it implemented.

Despite facing a challenging budget, we secured permanent funding for several important priorities, including historic investments in organic research… local food systems… and export promotion that will help our farmers tap into emerging markets.

Permanent support for veterans, socially disadvantaged, and beginning farmers will ensure a bright future for agriculture for many years to come. And our long-term investment in nutrition incentives and new produce prescriptions will improve access to healthy food for generations.

We established an Office of Urban Agriculture and provided historic new tools for urban farmers that are bringing jobs and fresh food into local communities. And we protected and enhanced tools that help farmers preserve our land, improve water quality, and support climate-smart agriculture.

We made strong investments in rural America, including expanding high-speed internet and re-establishing the Under Secretary for Rural Development. I look forward to the quick nomination of a qualified candidate.

We also expanded access to risk management tools like crop insurance. This will ensure that all farmers—no matter what they grow, or where they grow it—can protect their livelihoods.

We dramatically improved the dairy safety net to help dairy farmers weather the instability they have faced for too long. I had a good conversation with Deputy Secretary Censky recently about the new dairy program and I heard your testimony yesterday in the House.

I appreciate the USDA’s commitment to prioritize the new dairy program’s implementation. While I had hoped for a quicker start to the sign-up, there is still plenty of outreach work to do in the interim.

I encourage you to use every tool at your disposal to reach all eligible dairy producers and get payments out as soon as possible. Only about half of all dairy farms signed up in 2018—and the new program should far exceed that mark.

While there is a lot of positive work happening to implement the Farm Bill, I do want to raise some concerns.

Mr. Secretary, in the Farm Bill that the President signed into law, Congress decided not to make harmful changes to nutrition assistance. Unfortunately, this administration has proposed a partisan rule that makes changes to SNAP that were rejected by Congress and would take food assistance away from Americans struggling to find steady work.

This proposal is a blatant run around the law that would leave families hungry while doing nothing to connect people to long-term employment. It will face fierce opposition from lawmakers and advocates, and I encourage you to withdraw it.

I also have questions about the USDA’s capacity to implement the Farm Bill.

Year after year, the President’s budget proposals have called for steep cuts to USDA staff – and rumor has it, this year’s budget won’t be any better for agriculture. Congress has rejected these cuts and instead provided the Department enough resources to fill vacant positions and support our farmers.

However, I want to know why so many important positions remain unfilled.

In Michigan, I’ve heard that farmers are worried about lack of staff and a growing backlog of work in field offices. Without sufficient staff in local offices, the Farm Bill improvements won’t reach the very people they were designed to support.

Mr. Secretary, I know you are committed to prioritizing strong customer service at the Department, and I applaud that commitment. These vacancies raise questions about the USDA’s ability to implement the Farm Bill and provide our farmers and families with the level of service they deserve.

I look forward to hearing more about your plans to quickly and properly implement the Farm Bill for our farmers, families, and rural communities.