U.S. farming is more than 'go big or go out,' says ag secretary

FILE PHOTO: The sun sets behind a farm in Grimes
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By Leah Douglas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Biden administration is committed to shoring up small and midsize farm operations, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday, laying out a vision for a more competitive agriculture economy as Congress begins debate over the nation's largest farm spending bill.

The farm sector has become increasingly consolidated over the past several decades. Since 1987, the percentage of cropland managed by large farms, those with 2,000 or more acres, has risen to 41% from 15%, according to Department of Agriculture data. Farm families with smaller operations often rely on off-farm jobs to make ends meet.

"We believe there's a better alternative than go big or go out," Vilsack said, speaking to members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an advocacy group.

The USDA is funding programs that support new markets for commodities grown with climate-friendly practices, expand small- and medium-scale meat processing capacity, and increase domestic fertilizer production, all in hopes of encouraging more competition, enriching rural communities and making farming more environmentally friendly, Vilsack said.

The agency will also introduce a new grant program later this year to expand processing capacity for non-livestock commodities, he said.

Farmers should be educating lawmakers about the importance of these programs as discussion of the next farm bill begins in earnest on Capitol Hill, Vilsack said.

The current farm bill, which is passed every five years and funds major nutrition, subsidy, and conservation programs, expires on Sept. 30.

With the House of Representatives under Republican control, negotiation of the bill could become a test of the Biden administration's commitments to ending American hunger and cutting farming's greenhouse gas emissions.

House Republicans, including agriculture committee chair G.T. Thompson of Pennsylvania, have said the bill should not focus on climate policy or expand spending.

"There's historic money invested in this that some people want to take away," Vilsack said. "You can't let them."

(Reporting by Leah Douglas in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis)