Deputy Secretary Talks USDA Budget in Lebanon

11/30/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

LEBANON, Pa. — Krysta Harden, the new second-in-command at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, visited Lebanon County on Nov. 22, touring a watershed restoration project and talking with workers from several USDA agencies and the Lebanon County Conservation District.

Harden, the deputy secretary of agriculture, spoke about the department’s budget and asked for input from the field agents during a lunch meeting at the Lebanon Valley Agricultural Center.

Harden, who grew up on a farm in southwest Georgia where her family still grows peanuts, cotton, tobacco and vegetables, praised the cooperation of federal, state and county farm agencies in Lebanon County.

As members of USDA, “I know we’re supposed to work together, and we do,” but federal workers’ collaboration with the conservation district is helping achieve the groups’ common goals, she said.

Harden sought to encourage the workers as federal budget talks loom in Washington. The government shutdown furloughed most USDA workers last month, and the federal debt ceiling is set to expire on Feb. 1, 2014.

“I know it’s going to be tough,” she said of the negotiations. “All of us at headquarters know how hard it is to manage with such uncertainty.”

Harden was one of the few people working at USDA while the government was shut down. During that time she dealt with crises around the country that USDA field staff normally would have handled. “You are needed and appreciated,” she told the Lebanon group.

Sluggish Farm Bill discussions further complicate the department’s short-term planning. “I still remain optimistic about a Farm Bill. I think we need it so badly,” Harden said.

The proposed Farm Bill will improve the department’s operations by streamlining activities and eliminating direct payments, she said.

“This bill is about jobs” for farmers and food chain participants, she said.

Harden also looked past the next few months to talk about the department’s 2015 budget, which she is currently preparing.

She has been meeting frequently with budget and policy staff, hashing out 13-15 budget items at each meeting.

Harden then sends her budgets to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whom she described as “ferocious in seeing that we’re well-managed.”

“He looks at (the budget) line by line — little bitty writing too,” she said.

Vilsack asked his budget preparers to be creative but not play games with the 2015 budget, she said. “We owe that to the taxpayers,” she said.

The department weathered sequestration well; it was one of the few agencies that did not have to furlough anyone. Still, additional cuts of 10 percent or more could pare the department’s operations back to bare-bones level, she said.

The department has saved $980 million on top of sequestration by re-evaluating expenses like cell phone contracts and government vehicles — “things (that), if you were in a for-profit business, you would have already looked at,” she said.

The department is trying to find the most efficient way to operate — “we have a lot of acronyms; we have a lot of programs,” she said — but their flexibility is limited somewhat by congressional authorization of some programs and the massive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Many people “think of us helping a few farmers,” but conservation and farmer programs make up a fairly small part of USDA’s budget, Harden said. Depending on enrollment at a given time, 70 to 80 percent of the budget goes to SNAP, the food stamp program.

Harden also asked for feedback from the field-level employees who work directly with farmers.

Several NRCS engineers said the Environmental Protection Agency’s total maximum daily load, or TMDL, requirements are increasing pressure for on-farm conservation projects to meet the state’s Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction plan.

While the engineers are on board with reducing pollution, they worry improperly installed practices could be included in the count.

Denise Coleman, the state conservationist and a longtime friend of Harden’s, said some people who work under NRCS engineers’ job approval authority are tempted to relax NRCS requirements for forested buffers and similar projects to make sure the work counts toward the EPA’s conservation quotas.

“It can get really confusing to the landowner” as the farmer gets different answers from different people about what his project must entail, engineer Eric Ashley said.

NRCS engineers have state engineer’s licenses and NRCS job approval authority to evaluate conservation work. This approval can be extended to other people, Coleman said.

NRCS regulations show that job approval authority can be assigned to non-NRCS federal engineers from the same state or, depending on state law, to volunteers or members of cooperating organizations.

If those people working under assigned job approval sign off on substandard work, they can jeopardize the NRCS engineers’ licenses even though the engineers were not the ones who conducted the evaluation, Coleman said.

Harden said she had not heard of the issue before but would follow up on it.

Charles Wertz, manager of the Lebanon County Conservation District, told Harden that participation in the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program is getting more difficult. The program requires local matching grants, but local government budgets are very tight right now.

Harden said that local funding is important to ensure the locality is invested in the project, but that “a lot of things are driven by budget, unfortunately, rather than good policy.”

Before the meeting, Harden visited the Conewago Creek watershed, touring some of the many conservation projects near the stream. It was her first visit to the watershed, although a previous deputy secretary had visited the project when the Conewago Creek Initiative launched in 2009.

Harden said after the meeting that she had seen pictures from the beginning of the project. “It was great. I could see a lot of progress” since 2009, she said.

Harden sees farmers as important partners in conservation work because they have to agree to a lot of the projects. “They have to have the vision as well,” she said.

Harden was upbeat about Pennsylvania and other states’ ability to meet the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay pollution benchmarks.

“Many of them (the TMDL goals) will be” met, she said, citing the region’s “very strong conservation ethic.”

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