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A Late Start Doesn’t Have to Mean a Slow Start: 10 Things Secretary Perdue Can Do Now to Support Family Farmers

April 26, 2017


Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Photo credit: USDA, Lance Cheung.

On his first day on the job, Sonny Perdue – a former two-term governor and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) long-awaited new Secretary – addressed two very important audiences. The first, a formal introduction to USDA staff, was an opportunity for the Secretary to lay out his general vision for the department’s next four years.

“The only legacy I seek is the one that any grandparent seeks — that is to hand off our nation … our fields and our farms to the next generation in better shape than we found it,” Perdue said.

The second address was in a meeting with President Trump and 15 agricultural producers from around the country. The group was made up of mostly large-scale meat, dairy, grain, and specialty crop producers, as well as the current North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and former California Secretary of Food and Agriculture.

Immediately following the meeting, the President signed a new Executive Order establishing an inter-agency Task Force on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. The Task Force, which Secretary Perdue will lead, is charged with studying the struggles of rural Americans and identifying “legislative, regulatory, and policy changes to promote in rural America agriculture, economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life.”

In Perdue’s first two major outings we can already see signs of the push-pull that will no doubt influence this Administration’s work on agriculture. On the one hand, the Secretary has pledged to support the diversity of American agriculture, including small, mid-sized, and organic family farms as well as young and beginning farmers and the growing local/regional food industry. He has also repeatedly made statements indicating that land stewardship and natural resource conservation would be cornerstones of his tenure.

On the other hand, the President and Secretary have surrounded themselves almost exclusively with large-scale, industrial commodity farm and business owners, have yet to offer substantive details about how they will address the growing economic crisis in agriculture, and have proposed huge budget cuts to programs that assist farmers and rural businesses and communities.

If Secretary Perdue truly wishes to be a champion for the breadth and diversity that is the American agricultural community, there are 10 things that he should take leadership on right away:

  1. Finalize the Farmer Fair Practices Rules and issue a plan for enforcement
  2. Protect family farmers rural communities by rejecting the President’s proposed cuts to USDA
  3. Protect working lands conservation programs and conservation technical assistance
  4. Create opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers
  5. Create jobs and spur industry growth by expanding local and regional food infrastructure
  6. Strengthen food security and climate resilience by scaling up and strengthening agricultural research programs
  7. Issue overdue Requests for Applications immediately
  8. Focus on substantive improvements to programs and policies, not on reshuffling USDA to make room for a new Undersecretary
  9. Expand low-income families’ access to fresh, local food
  10. Ensure that Food Safety Modernization Act regulations are helping, not hurting, small and mid-sized family farm operations

 

  1. Finalize the Farmer Fair Practices Rules and issue a plan for enforcement

American farmers and food producers have waited nearly 100 days for President Trump’s Agriculture Secretary to be in place. Even considering that Perdue’s confirmation was the latest for an Agriculture Secretary in any normal cycle Administration, the wait still seems like small potatoes compared to the roughly 100 years contract producers have been waiting for Congress and USDA to grant them basic rights and protections from abusive practices by their employers. Farmers have been fighting for these protections for years. Most recently, their demands were enshrined in a series of three rules from USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) called the Farmer Fair Practices Rules (FFPR), which were published at the end of the Obama Administration.

The rules, which the Trump administration has already delayed several times, are designed to balance the power between the contract farmer and corporate meat processing companies – a balance that is currently skewed entirely in the favor of the corporation.

Secretary Perdue should immediately reverse the Administration’s decision to delay the enactment of GIPSA’s interim final rule, and should allow the two proposed rules to move forward toward finalization. Contrary to disingenuous statements made by the chicken processing industry, these rules will not threaten value-added production or marketing arrangements. Rather, they will provide basic protections for farmers who routinely face deceptive and abusive contracting practices by the multinational packing companies. Click here to learn more.

  1. Protect family farmers rural communities by rejecting the President’s proposed cuts to USDA, including the proposed elimination of the Rural Business Cooperative Service

President Trump’s “skinny budget” clearly showed that agriculture and rural America were not a priority for this Administration. The draconic cuts proposed in the President’s first budget proposal would slash USDA’s budget by a whopping 21 percent and in some cases eliminate entire suites of programs and services.

Among the programs currently on the chopping block are rural water and wastewater management, cooperative, and business programs. These programs, which include the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program, Rural Business Development Grants (RBDG) program, Rural Cooperative Development Grants (RCDG), Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program (B&I), Community Facilities Grants and Loans, and Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program, have a proven track record of success both in terms of business survivability rates and job creation. To call such vital programs ‘underperforming,’ as the skinny budget does, reflects a lack of understanding of their function and impact. As rural America’s chief advocate in the Trump Administration, we strongly urge Secretary Perdue to advocate for increased investment in rural business development programs and vociferously oppose these cuts. Click here to learn more.

  1. Protect working lands conservation programs and conservation technical assistance

The 2014 Farm Bill cut the Conservation Title by $4 billion over ten years. Since the 2014 Farm Bill passed, the bill has also been repeatedly opened through a peculiar congressional action known as “changes in mandatory program spending” or CHIMPS, which congressional appropriators have used as a backdoor avenue to cut conservation funding – chiefly from the two programs that make up the heart of USDA’s working lands conservation portfolio: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). CSP and EQIP confer significant benefits to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners by providing payments to help them improve and protect their natural resources and reduce the amount and cost of on-farm inputs. As an Agriculture Secretary who has repeatedly cited his and his family’s commitment to stewardship, we expect Secretary Perdue to stand against any attempted CHIMPS to CSP or EQIP during the appropriations process and to also fight for adequate funding for working lands conservation in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Congress isn’t the only threat to family farmers who rely upon working lands conservation programs, however. The President’s “skinny budget” proposes to limit USDA field office staffing and to privatize conservation planning. While USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a long history of partnering with non-governmental entities to help deliver services, private sector engagement in the area of conservation planning is limited, and could not possibly fill the gap if funding were cut. Privatizing conservation planning would greatly reduce farmers’ ability to access farm bill conservation programs since the staffing needed to deliver the programs would be decimated. Click here to learn more.

  1. Create opportunities for the next generation of farmers and ranchers

Access to credit and financing is critical for farmers and ranchers, particularly those just beginning their career in agriculture. Historically, the demand for USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans – critical for beginning farmers who often cannot access private loans because of their lack of capital and production history – has greatly outstripped FSA’s available funding. Secretary Perdue should be the voice of America’s beginning farmers and ranchers within this Administration by advocating for adequate funding levels for FSA loan programs in FY 2017 and 2018.

With the recent drop in commodity prices and the uncertainty of the future economic conditions, there is additional pressure on FSA loans to help farmers (even experienced producers) cover annual operating expenses. In June 2016, FSA ran out of both guaranteed and direct operating funds due to the increased demand for operating capital, resulting in a significant backlog of approved farmers who were unable to secure credit for expenses this growing season. One of Secretary Perdue’s first orders of business should be to work with Congress to ensure that loan funding is sufficient to meet demand. Click here to learn more.

Additionally, all the loan funding in the world won’t help beginning farmers if there’s no available land for purchase. With a farmer population rapidly aging into retirement and nearly 100 million acres of farmland expected to change hands in the next five years, it’s imperative that Secretary Perdue make land access one of his top priorities moving forward. Part of this effort should include encouraging President Trump and the Treasury Department to support tax reform that includes innovative mechanisms to facilitate the transfer of farmland from one generation to the next. Click here to learn more.

  1. Create jobs and spur industry growth by expanding local and regional food infrastructure

Investments in infrastructure help direct-market producers – like those that sell their products through CSAs, farmers markets, and food hubs – to grow their businesses. It also helps consumers by increasing their access to fresh, healthy foods. As a result of inadequate supply chains, however, farmers have been unable to keep pace with the growing demand for locally produced food. By building upon successful programs and forging innovative public-private partnerships, Secretary Perdue could transform regional food “enterprises” into fully-fledged regional food “economies.”

Investing in regional food system infrastructure will boost growth by creating jobs and generating new economic activity in both rural and urban communities. It will also help farmers and ranchers become more resilient by helping them to diversify their operations through new and non-traditional market opportunities. And finally, greater investment in local/regional food infrastructure will also help to address our country’s obesity epidemic by increasing access to healthy food in rural and urban food deserts. This is an area in which an accelerated investment plan could yield great rewards in the short, medium, and long term. Click here to learn more.

  1. Strengthen our food security and climate resilience by scaling up and strengthening agricultural research programs

Nobody is born knowing how to farm or raise animals. Farmers and ranchers learn best practices the same way professionals in other fields do, through trial and error, by learning from their peers, and from research done by experts in their industry. As such, USDA’s competitive grants programs for research, extension, and education addressing the food and agricultural sciences, are critical parts of a robust and resilience future for food and agriculture. Chief among these programs are the:

  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, a regionally based, farmer driven, and outcome-oriented competitive research program that involves farmers and ranchers directly in research as the primary investigators or as cooperators in larger research and education projects.
  • Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, which supports research projects that specifically address the most critical challenges faced by organic producers.
  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the only federal program exclusively dedicated to training the next generation of farmers and ranchers. This highly successful initiative provides competitively awarded grants to academic institutions, state extension services, producer groups, and community organizations to support and train new farmers and ranchers across the country.
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the largest competitive grants program, which funds researchers to solve a wide range of pressing challenges facing farmers and society.

Secretary Perdue should be a champion for these programs by advocating for increased funding and support in the FY 2017 and 2018 appropriations bills and in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In addition to advocating for enhanced funding, Secretary should also ensure that USDA’s largest research program (AFRI) equitably serves the diversity of the American agricultural system. The most direct way the Secretary can achieve this is by allowing all eligible entities (as authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill) to apply for research funding through AFRI – this includes NGOs and federal and private research organizations who are currently deemed by USDA to be ineligible to apply for some AFRI projects.

  1. Get USDA’s house in order by issuing overdue Requests for Applications immediately

Numerous agencies within USDA are currently sitting on overdue Requests for Applications (RFAs) due to the long delay in getting a new Secretary in place. RFAs, also sometimes called Notice of Solicitations for Applications, are the means by which farmers, farm advocates, and researchers access USDA funds for competitive programs. Currently,  major RFAs for fiscal year (FY) 2017 are overdue, including for instance the:

  • Value-Added Producer Grant program (VAPG), which provides competitive grants to producers for working capital, feasibility studies, business plans, and marketing efforts to establish viable value-added businesses.
  • Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program, which provides grants to colleges and universities and community based organizations to provide outreach and assistance to socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers to overcome the unique challenges they face in agriculture.

Secretary Perdue needs to get things organized as soon as possible at USDA and move these delayed RFAs out the door. The sooner these RFAs are issued the sooner that farmers, farm advocates, and technical service providers can access these much-needed funds and get back to work.

  1. Focus on substantive improvements to programs and policies, not on reshuffling USDA to make room for a new Undersecretary

In his written responses to questions from members of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee, Secretary Perdue indicated he would want to create a new position to deal with trade issues – Undersecretary for Trade. With so much critical work to get done in 2017, Secretary Perdue should focus his efforts on improving USDA policy and programs rather than creating a new, duplicative Undersecretary position. If Secretary Perdue does move forward with the proposal to create a new position, one existing undersecretary position will need to be eliminated. If this happens, Secretary Perdue should at the very least ensure that the core functions of each USDA agency remain intact, and that domestic agriculture and rural development are not shortchanged.

  1. Expand low-income families’ access to fresh, local food by expanding and improving Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) functionality at farmers’ markets and other direct market operations

In the mid-1990s the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, transitioned from a paper to an electronic benefits system (EBT). In the years following the transition SNAP purchases at farmers markets have steadily declined, primarily due to a lack of equipment and technology to accept and process the electronic benefits. USDA has made numerous attempts to resolve this issue, but to date the department’s responses has been incremental and ad hoc at best.

Low-income SNAP families need and deserve access to fresh, healthy foods – expanding and improving EBT functionality for direct market producers can help close this access gap. Given the complexity and importance of resolving this issue, Secretary Perdue should move forward expeditiously with the development of a comprehensive, department-wide strategy. By forming an inter-agency, multi-stakeholder working group the Secretary can: improve communication between the Department and the direct market farming, local food sector, e-payments industry, and public health communities; include more substantial stakeholder input in the regulatory process; and effectively guide EBT technology modernization and related reforms. Click here to learn more.

  1. Ensure that Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) regulations are helping, not hurting, small and mid-sized family farm operations

In 2011, FSMA established sweeping food safety requirements for farms producing fruits and vegetables, among other requirements for participants across the food supply chain. Though all of the seven major FSMA rules have now been finalized, there remains widespread confusion in the food producing community about how to comply with the rules and to which persons or facilities particular rules apply. In order to ensure that these new rules are protecting the public while not unduly burdening small and mid-sized family farm operations, Secretary Perdue should:

  • Prioritize Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) applications from organizations that represent or work directly with farmers to ensure appropriately tailored and accessible food safety outreach, training, and technical assistance. FSOP is the only competitive grants program exclusively focused on providing food safety outreach and education to small-scale farmers and processors. Despite clear authorizing language and appropriations report language, USDA has not yet prioritized on-the-ground FSOP training projects that are led by and tailored to the needs of the local community.
  • Create a department-wide initiative that highlights USDA services and programs that support farmers in complying with FSMA requirements. Farmers need this support as soon as possible because many are now making businesses decisions based on when they are required to become FSMA compliant (January 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively for large, small, and very small farms). A department-wide initiative would increase awareness of USDA’s existing assistance and outreach programs, streamline the application processes, and improve programmatic coordination and efficiency.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Food Safety, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Nutrition & Food Access, Research, Education & Extension


One response to “A Late Start Doesn’t Have to Mean a Slow Start: 10 Things Secretary Perdue Can Do Now to Support Family Farmers”

  1. Jan nelson says:

    as a farmer and forestland owner, i have been a member of the Local Advisory Committee for the Upper Willamette Basin Agriculture Water Quality Management Area since 2001, a USDA program initiated to comply with the Clean Water Act. If the Food Safety and Modernization Act interferes with maintaining our native and natural environment, it will not only not deal with food contamination problems it will keep us farmers from working with nature.

    for example my honeybees depend on the natural environment to collect nectar and pollen when my fruit trees are not in bloom. we know how to work with nature on our land. most food contamination occurs in handling and storage

    also we need more farm workers, not walls.

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