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Final Budget Bill Guts Conservation Funding and Farmer Protections

December 11, 2014


Late on December 9, Congress released their final annual appropriations bill to keep the government running for the rest of the fiscal year, and while there is some good news, overall it’s bleak news for sustainable agriculture – complete with drastic cuts to critical conservation programs and anti-farmer policy riders that favor big livestock integrators over actual farmers. The bill emerged after a couple of weeks of behind closed doors meetings of House and Senate leadership and appropriations leaders.

The full House is expected to vote on the bill December 11, the day the current continuing resolution keeping the government funded runs out. A very short-term continuing resolution may be needed to fund the government for a day or two to avert a government shut-down and give the Senate a chance to vote. The bill is expected to pass, with votes from both parties, though the vote tallies are expected to be close. The White House has indicated the President will sign the bill.

We will update readers on legislative action on the bill in the coming days, and will also publish our annual chart of line by line funding decisions on sustainable farm and food programs.

Overview

In total, this so-called “cromnibus” package, weighing in at 1,600 pages, authorizes $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending to fund the federal government through September 30 of next year, with the exception of the Department of Homeland Security, whose funding will need to be renegotiated in February once Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress. The new “cromnibus” term is a conflation of “CR” or continuing resolution, which is what the homeland security bill is – an autopilot continuation of last year’s spending levels – and “omnibus” or the process Congress often uses to combine multiple appropriations bills into a single mega bill. The CR for homeland security is intended to keep Republican options open to strike back at the White House early next year for having taken a few steps in the direction of immigration reform.

The cromnibus bill represents largely flat or slightly shrinking domestic social program spending levels, including overall cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Of the trillion dollars in newly appropriated funds for 2015, $20.6 billion (or roughly two percent) is directed to fund food, farm, and rural development programs administered by USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This level is a cut of $305 million below last year’s funding.

With the exception of homeland security, the bill is a real appropriations bill, not another autopilot-type continuing resolution locking in old spending patterns. The bill includes new multi-billion dollar bumped up funding packages for military spending in the Middle East, for Ebola, and assistance to reduce the flow of Central American children to the US, among other items sought by the White House. On the other hand, it keeps a very tight lid on domestic spending for normal government functions, and includes plenty of policy measures hitching a ride on the last train leaving the station, before the 113th Congress closes up its work this month. While White House priorities such as climate rules, affordable health care, water regulation, and school lunch nutrition standards emerged relatively unscathed, the new bill take major steps to weaken campaign finance reform, Dodd-Frank financial reform, fair competition rules for the meat industry, and protections for the western sage grouse, to name but a few.

Sustainable Agriculture Priority Issues

Below, we include an overview of how the following sustainable agriculture priority program areas ended up in the final 2015 agriculture appropriations bill:

Conservation

The 2014 Farm Bill cut $4 billion from voluntary conservation assistance programs, or over $6 billion when accounting for sequestration. The new spending bill unveiled yesterday piles on, taking nearly $600 million more, primarily from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP).

In total, the new bill reduces the total number of new acres that can be enrolled in CSP this fiscal year by 2.3 million, or nearly a quarter of the total acreage recently authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. This draconian and short-sighted cut results in a minuscule $7 million in funds the bill then spends on other programs, while its effect on CSP is to cut the program by $402 million over the next ten years. This is legislating at its worst, denying thousands of farmers and ranchers the opportunity to participate in the high level conservation program for no reason other than wanting $7 million to pay for unrelated USDA expenses and throwing $395 million out the window in the process.

And while EQIP fares better over the longer-term, the program is still cut by $136 million in the current budget bill headed to the House for approval. This level is even greater than the levels negotiated in both the House and Senate draft agriculture spending bills, although it’s a significantly smaller cut than in FY 2014.

On the positive side, the bill refrains from cutting any mandatory funding from the newly created Agriculture Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and it provides a significant bump up for the conservation operations and conservation technical assistance budget.

Fairness for Contract Livestock and Poultry Farmers

The bill contains a noxious legislative rider preventing USDA from implementing basic common sense protections for family farms that raise livestock and poultry for multinational meat companies. These rules of the road were first proposed in 2010 and sustained by Congress as part of the 2014 Farm Bill. However, Big Meat has been fighting them through provisions added to must-pass annual appropriations bills by their allies on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

The polices the rider prevents from being finalized would only provide the most basic protections, like preventing the companies from pulling a farmer’s contract or providing sick animals because they exercise their free speech rights, including their right to speak to their Congressional representatives about their farms without fear of retaliation. These companies have a history of retaliating against producers that speak-out about the conditions on their farms and these one sided contracts.

This year’s rider goes even goes further than previous riders in its unprecedented action to force USDA to withdraw current fair contract regulations and the most commons sense protections.

This rider is an attempt by Big Meat to prevent the Packers and Stockyards program at USDA from doing anything to protect the rights of farmers and ensure a fair marketplace for meat and poultry. Adoption of the rider is an extreme, radical, and blatantly anti-farmer provision that has no place in an appropriations bill, or indeed in any bill.

In addition to this awful rider, the new bill also contains a directive for USDA to propose legislative changes to the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law by May 1 and a directive prohibiting USDA from proposing a new beef check-off program under its long-standing statutory authority to do so. These directives are not legislative provisions but rather included in report language accompanying the bill, leaving the outcomes a bit more uncertain. Nonetheless, their inclusion in the bill is widely seen as a win for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which opposes COOL and has a virtual monopoly on the current beef check-off program.

Research, Education and Extension

On the research front, the bill provides a modest increase in the funding for both USDA’s internal and extramural research programs, as well as data collection activities. In total, the final bill invests $2.7 billion into publicly funded agricultural research.

This includes a slight increase in funding for the Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI) bringing total FY 2015 funding levels to $325 million. Additionally, there is a policy provision included in the bill that would exempt AFRI research grants from the new matching requirements included in the final farm bill, but require all other competitive research programs to comply with the new matching funds policy.

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is the longest-standing research program that has been addressing the research needs of sustainable and organic farmers for over 25 years. Unfortunately, unlike AFRI and a few other research programs, SARE does not receive even a modest increase in funding, with total program funding resting at $22.7 million. This is the same level at which the program was funding in FY 2014 and is just a third of its authorized level. Although this program is significantly smaller than its AFRI counterpart, the program is the only farmer-driven research program, is highly successful in delivering and implementing research findings that farmers can use and adopt on their farms, and has become increasingly competitive over the years.

One of the bright spots in the bill is first time funding of $2.5 million for the Food Safety Outreach Program, a new farmer training program that NSAC championed in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2010. With the public comment period for new food safety regulations closing next week, our nation’s farmers will need a massive training campaign to get their farms up to speed and ensure they understand how their farm will be impacted and how to comply with new food safety standards. Not related to research, education, and extension, but related to FSMA, the bill includes a $27 million increase for the Food and Drug Administration for FSMA implementation and enforcement.

Another bright spot in the bill is a small increase for the ATTRA (National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) program, to $2.5 million.

Another sustainable agriculture priority – the Organic Transitions Program – received level funding in the final 2015 bill.

Additionally, the report accompanying the bill text reiterates a directive from last year’s funding bill to utilize $2.25 million from the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives to fund an Organic Production Survey as a comprehensive follow on to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. The first ever USDA survey of organic growers was conducted in 2010, and provided a wealth of price, production, and trend data on the organic sector. NSAC has been working with the agency to urge them to conduct the Organic Production Survey as a regular follow-on to the Census of Agriculture, in order to establish valuable trend data that is necessary to assess the performance and trends within the organic industry. The National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) is the agency responsible for leading the charge on this survey, and is expected to begin mailing the 2014 Organic Production Survey to organic farmers early next year.

Rural Development and Farm Loans

On the whole, the new bill increases funding and resources for USDA’s farm programs and loan making agency, but misses the opportunity to jump start and expand investments in innovative programs aimed at beginning farmers and rural entrepreneurs.

Perhaps the biggest win in the bill for NSAC is the very significant bump up in funding for FSA farm loans – including $1.5 billion dollars for direct farm ownership loans (to help farmers purchase farmland) and $1.3 billion for direct operating loans (to cover annual farm operating expenses like seeds and other inputs). This funding level represents an almost tripling of recent funding levels and will hopefully alleviate the large backlog in farmers who are approved for but unable to obtain FSA loans due to lack of funding.

The major disappointment in 2015 funding levels for credit programs is the lack of funding provided to finally jump start the much anticipated Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (IDA) program. This innovative matched savings account pilot program, that was first created in the 2008 Farm Bill and recently reauthorized in the 2014 Farm bill, would target federal funding to help farmers most in need of financing get started in agriculture. The program is modeled after successful IDA programs that have worked to transition more people into becoming homeowners and pursuing higher education. The Senate bill provided $2.5 million to launch this financial training and asset building program – a mere drop in the bucket of agricultural spending included in the bill. We are severely disappointed that Congressional negotiators caved to the House language which did not provide any funding for beginning farmer IDAs.

On the Rural Development front, we are disappointed to see that no additional discretionary funding was provided for the sorely underfunded Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP). The 2014 Farm Bill provides $3 million in mandatory funding for the program in FY15 and an additional authorization for $40 million more to support the program. The $3 million provided in the Farm Bill is not nearly a large enough investment to spur economic development in Rural America or even to keep up with financial commitments already made to community-based micro-lenders in previous years. Small businesses are the number one job creators in rural communities and RMAP is a proven program that helps small rural businesses not only get started, but grow and develop a solid and viable business plan that will sustain them for generations to come.

Likewise, we are disappointed the final bill includes the lower House funding level for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG) of $10.75 million for new grants for FY 2015, rather than the Senate’s $15 million level. This grant program is a very popular and successful rural development program that provides funding to farmers and farm cooperatives to add value to their farm products and diversify income streams, and has been funded at significantly higher levels in previous years. Thankfully, the farm bill also includes mandatory funding for VAPG which can be used to supplement the disappointingly low appropriations.

Other Policy Riders

In addition to providing funding levels for all USDA and FDA programs and activities, the final FY15 appropriations bill also includes over a hundred extraneous policy riders, which are pieces of authorizing legislation that direct policy, not funding levels, and have no rightful place in an appropriations bill.  Nevertheless, with the gridlock in Congress, policy riders have become an all too common approach by legislators to enact legislative changes, and curtail the Administration’s regulatory and enforcement authority.

The bill contains three riders that relate to EPA’s regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act (CWA), but does not limit EPA’s ability to finalize the proposed Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule.

One of the CWA riders would require EPA to withdraw the controversial interpretive rule that accompanied the WOTUS rule. NSAC was not among those who called for this rule to be withdrawn, though we shared concerns about the unintended consequences of the rule. NSAC submitted comments on how the agencies could improve the interpretive rule to clarify that it did not intend to create new exemptions for dredge/fill activities on farms, while still supporting voluntary conservation measures with clear water quality and wetland conservation benefits. Several farm and environmental groups called for the interpretive rule to be withdrawn, albeit for different reasons. Its loss is not seen as a major problem.

A second rider touches on the issue of existing exemptions for agricultural activities under the Clean Water Act dredge/fill permit requirements. It is unclear whether this rider intends to expand existing exemptions, or simply clarify that those exemptions exist.

The bill’s report includes language directing the Secretary of Agriculture to provide Congress with options to  bring our Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law into compliance with international trade agreement obligations. The directive requires that the options be delivered by May 1, 2015, well in advance of any decision on of the legality of COOL under international law. The inclusion of this provision is premature at best, and if USDA attempts to comply, it will be shooting a bit in the dark given the decision will not yet have been issued.

The final bill does not include the rider sought by the School Nutrition Association to provide for waivers from the nutritional standards for school meals. It does however include variants of Senate compromises that will allow states to waive the whole grain requirement if schools can demonstrate hardship in procuring whole grain products and will prohibit new lower sodium requirements from going into effect until yet more research is completed on sodium and its effects on children and health. The bill also includes a rider that adds white potatoes to the WIC food package. A funding item in the school food section of the bill provides for $25 million, the same amount as last year, for competitive grants that schools can apply for to serve healthier meals, improve food safety, and help support the establishment, maintenance, or expansion of the school breakfast program.

Complete bill text of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2015 Omnibus

Joint Explanatory Statement (Agriculture)


Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment


2 responses to “Final Budget Bill Guts Conservation Funding and Farmer Protections”

  1. Please fund VAPG to higher Senate level of $15 million

  2. […] additional information on conservation programs see: NSAC blog […]

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