New USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held his first formal news conference Monday and the secretary provided a broad overview of the issues and initiatives he considers to be priorities. The list includes quick implementation of the farm bill, advancing biofuels research and development along with wind power and other renewable energy sources, provide a safety net for all of agriculture, and play a key role in the public health debate.

Secretary Vilsack has taken action already on two items. He is extending by sixty days the comment period for the 2008 Farm Bill Farm Program Payment Limitation and Payment Eligibility rule. Vilsack said the extension will not affect rules in place for this crop year. He said, “I realize that sign-up has begun and it’s important for farmers, ranchers, and bankers to have clear and consistent rules in place so that producers can prepare for the crop year and manage their risks appropriately. However I want to pursue an extended comment period so that we can review the extent and purpose of the rule for future crop years.”

Vilsack added, “I am particularly interested in suggestions that would help the department target the payments to farmers who really need the payments, and to insure that payments are not being provided to ineligible parties.”

To date only a half dozen comments have been received at USDA.

USDA will also reverse intended Bush administration cuts in the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program. “The rescission, if it had been put into effect, would have cut more than $3 million from this popular program," said Vilsack. "It is clear from what President Obama has indicated to me, that he wants this department to promote nutrition through the use of healthy fruits and vegetables, and so we are withdrawing that rescission so that those resources can be made available.”