October 6, 2017
The end of the fiscal year (September 30) has come and gone, and with fiscal year (FY) 2017 funding levels extended through December 8, the time Congress has to negotiate final spending levels for FY 2018 is quickly running out.
There is a lot on the line in this appropriations package for farmers and consumers nationwide. A significant part of our work at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is protecting and enhancing federal farm and food programs through the annual appropriations process. In our recently submitted recommendations for FY 2018, we highlighted priority areas that require congressional support, including: conservation, beginning farmer and rancher, research, rural development and local food programs.
At this point, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees have moved their respective agriculture funding bills through the full House and Senate Appropriations Committees. The House has taken the next step and passed their bill through the full House, which has now initiated the process of negotiating with Senate appropriators to determine final spending levels for the year.
Recognizing that appropriations can be opaque and confusing, we’ve outlined key priority areas to watch as this process moves forward in both chambers.
One of the biggest FY 2018 appropriations victories to date is the fact that the House Bill leaves funding for two of the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most integral conservation programs – the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) – fully intact. This is the first time in years that the House has not recommended cuts to EQIP, which we hope is a good sign for ongoing negotiations.
The Senate bill also keeps CSP funding intact, but proposes a nearly 20 percent cut to EQIP. Included in NSAC’s appropriations recommendations is a plea to Senate appropriators to keep the needs of family farmers and our natural resources in mind and adopt the House’s proposal to protect mandatory funding for all farm bill conservation programs.
We have also made recommendations regarding Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which is critical for the implementation of farm bill conservation programs. Our recommendations urge appropriators to adopt the Senate’s funding level for CTA, which is $10 million above the FY 2017 level.
One of NSAC’s top research priorities in this appropriations cycle is protecting and enhancing the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. SARE is one of the longest standing and most successful competitive grants programs at USDA. For over 30 years, the SARE program has helped to turn farmer-driven research, education, and extension into profitable and environmentally sound practices. Despite SARE’s record of success and popularity among farmers and researchers, however, the program is currently funded at less than half of its authorized amount. We are pleased that the Senate bill addresses this shortfall by increasing SARE funding from $27 million to $30 million. Unfortunately, however, the House bill proposes cutting SARE by $2.3 million from FY 2017 levels. NSAC strongly urges congressional appropriators to adopt the Senate funding level for SARE.
In order to ensure that farmers have the tools and resources they need to comply with USDA’s recently updated food safety regulations, additional funding is needed for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). Over 100,000 producers will be impacted by new regulations beginning in 2018, and in order to meet the needs of those farmers, FSOP’s capacity will have to be significantly increased. The Senate bill addresses this critical need by increasing FSOP funding to $7 million, and we urge appropriators to adopt this level in final funding legislation.
Value Added Production
The Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program provides funding to farmers to create or expand value-added producer-owned businesses. “Adding value” in this case can mean transforming a raw commodity into a product like bread or jam, and it can also include special branding and marketing that will differentiate a product in the marketplace. VAPG grants can help farmers to develop business plans and conduct feasibility studies for these projects, as well as help them get the project off the ground once the planning stage is complete. Value-added enterprises are growing in popularity among family farmers because they have been shown to increase farm income and marketing opportunities, create new jobs in rural communities, and improve access to fresh, healthy food for families nationwide.
NSAC supports the Senate bill’s provision of $15 million in funding for VAPG in FY 2018.
Access to Credit
USDA Direct and Guaranteed Loans – serviced by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) – provide access to credit for farmers (particularly beginning farmers) who are not well-served by commercial credit. These loan programs are critical for farmers nationwide who struggle to access loans and other financial services that help them to launch and sustain their businesses. Despite the critical need for these services, however, the House has proposed cuts that would prevent thousands of farmers from securing the credit they need.
NSAC encourages congressional appropriations to adopt the Senate proposal of level funding for FSA Direct and Guaranteed Operating and Farm Ownership Loans in FY 2018.
Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers
The Senate bill would also take another important step to support beginning farmers and ranchers by increasing funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (aka, the “2501 program”). For decades, this program has helped institutions and nonprofits to provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to serve our historically underserved producers.
When the program’s funding was sliced in half by the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA was forced to reduce both the size and duration of grant awards, resulting in fewer farmers able to access the support. In order to restore 2501’s capacity to provide technical assistance to our nations’ minority and veteran farming communities, we urge appropriators to (at the very least) adopt the Senate’s funding level of $3 million in discretionary funding for FY 2018.
The last major priority area for NSAC is rural development. Earlier this year, USDA opted to downgrade its Rural Development Mission Area and remove its Under Secretary – a decision opposed by many food, farm, and rural-centered organizations including NSAC.
The Senate bill takes a stand for farmers and rural communities by proposing that the Rural Development Mission Area, and its Under Secretary, be reinstated. The bill also provides funding for that long-standing position.
Rural Development (RD) is an organization of 5000 people, 400 offices, and with a loan portfolio of $216 billion dollars. It also supervises 40 programs that serve farmers and rural communities nationwide. Given its size and complexity, RD requires the leadership of an Under Secretary to ensure that the work of its agencies is coordinated and effective. Without this leadership and oversight, federal agencies tend to drift toward their own, disparate agendas, leaving large gaps in service.
A Senate-confirmed Under Secretary of Rural Development would be part of USDA’s subcabinet, and therefore in a position to safeguard rural priorities at the highest level. Our recommendation, therefore, is for appropriators to adopt the Senate language that retains funding for the Office of the Under Secretary for Rural Development and directs the Secretary to appoint someone to that position.
What About the Caps?
Before Congress can pass final appropriations legislation for FY 2018, they must decide whether or not to raise overall discretionary spending caps. In 2011, Congress set spending caps for the following ten years. Since then, the House and Senate have on a number of occasions agreed to raise those caps for a particular year or set of years. To date, however, no such deal has been reached for FY 2018.
As currently written, the House Appropriations Committee’s spending package (known as the “mini-bus”) would bust the defense spending cap for FY 2018 by more than $72 billion. The spending package would not, however, exceed the non-defense spending cap. The FY 2018 spending allocations set by the Senate Appropriations Committee would exceed both the defense and the non-defense spending caps.
This is important for farmers and agricultural advocates because when the caps are exceeded, automatic across-the-board cuts (known as “sequestration”) are applied to all non-exempt programs. If final appropriations legislation for FY 2018 exceeds the non-defense spending cap, sequestration cuts will be applied to discretionary spending for nearly all programs administered by USDA.
Congress still has a long list of items to check off of its to-do list before the December 8 appropriations deadline. At the top of the list are: the negotiation of a budget for FY 2018, tax reform, working on the next farm bill, and addressing disaster assistance needs across the country.
We expect that appropriators will be negotiating final appropriations levels over the next several months. Most Members of Congress will be doing all they can to avoid a government shutdown or a full year funding extension at FY 2017 levels.
NSAC will continue to monitor and report on the appropriations process as it moves forward, so stay tuned for further updates.
Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development