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Sustainable Agriculture Priorities in the FY 2019 Appropriations Bill

February 21, 2019


Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce tell NSAC members about their organic produce operation. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.
Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce tell NSAC members about their organic produce operation. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Last week, the House and Senate were finally able to agree on and finalize spending levels for the seven remaining appropriations bills not yet signed into law – including funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The final appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2019 passed by both chambers last week provides funding for the covered agencies through the end of September this year (when the current fiscal year expires).

The spending package was the product of months of negotiations between Congress and the White House, including the longest government shutdown in history. Nearly five months after the FY 2018 appropriations bill first expired, a deal finally passed the Senate (83-16) and House (300-128) and the President promptly signed the package into law. At the same time that he signed the appropriations bill, the President also declared a national emergency in an attempt to secure additional funding for his border wall.

Securing billions of dollars for the Administration’s border wall had been one of the primary sticking points in the FY 2019 appropriations debates, and one of the core causes of the partial government shutdown. Though we can expect ongoing legal challenges and fights over the national emergency declaration and border wall funding, the passage of the FY 2019 spending package does at least make it possible for USDA and other agencies to get back to full operation capacity and to begin the long process of implementing the new farm bill, and for Congress to begin work on FY 2020 appropriations.

How We Got Here: Background

Each year, Congress passes spending bills to fund discretionary government programs and activities, including those administered by USDA. The FY 2019 appropriations cycle began in February of 2018 with the release of the President’s Budget Proposal, which proposed devastating cuts to sustainable agriculture programs and priorities. Thanks to pressure from advocates like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many others, however, Congress strongly rejected those cuts.

In May 2018, the House and Senate appropriations committees passed their annual agriculture spending bills, which (when considered collectively) protected or increased funding for all of NSAC’s FY 2019 priorities. By early fall, it seemed that appropriators could successfully “conference” (negotiate the differences between) their two agriculture spending bills and pass a final bill before the September 30 fiscal year deadline. Unfortunately, agriculture was not among the package of bills that were passed in “regular order,” which resulted in delays to funding and programming as well as USDA staff shortages just as farm bill implementation was about to get underway.

Now that the Agriculture Appropriations bill has been finalized for the rest of FY 2019, USDA (and farmers, ranchers, and food producing communities across the country) can finally get fully back to business.

Where We Are Now: FY 2019 Appropriations Summary

The FY 2019 minibus provides $23.04 billion in total discretionary funding for USDA and FDA; $32 million above FY 2018 levels. Last year, NSAC helped to secure an overall increase in agriculture spending – Congress passed a two-year budget deal that raised the annual discretionary spending caps for defense and non-defense (including agriculture) programs for two years (FY 2018 and 2019). Although a significant portion of this year’s increase in agriculture spending was focused on rural infrastructure and fighting the opioid epidemic, we also achieved several historic increases in funding for sustainable agriculture priorities. Overall, NSAC is pleased that the final FY 2019 agriculture spending levels build upon the increases gained in FY 2018.

In addition to robust funding for sustainable agriculture priorities, we are also pleased that the final FY 2019 bill includes language pushing back against the Administration’s proposal to relocate and reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

In this post, we analyze how sustainable agriculture fared in the FY 2019 “minibus” across the following issue areas:

For a detailed spreadsheet of FY 2019 funding levels, download our updated appropriations chart.

Conservation and Energy

For the second consecutive year, NSAC helped to ensure an appropriations funding bill free of cuts to mandatory spending for the farm bill’s major working lands conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NSAC has long fought against “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (aka CHIMPS) to farm bill conservation programs in appropriations bills, and we applaud congressional appropriators for once again choosing to protect these critical conservation programs. In this first year of the new farm bill, it is immensely important that the appropriations bill not undermine conservation funding – especially as demand for these programs and services continues to outstrip available funding each year.

In addition to protecting working lands conservation programs, the bill also increases total funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which provides farmers with on-the ground conservation support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) local offices. CTA supports farmers’ resource management through conservation planning assistance, resource assessment, and monitoring of conservation activities. The actual funding level in the final bill appears to decrease both CTA ($725.9 million) and Conservation Operations ($819.5 million) (within which CTA funding is provided,) however, this is only because of some restructuring at USDA. Several NRCS functions have moved to the Business Center within USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area, so these funds for these services that are routed through FPAC’s Business Center must be factored in as well. When combined with the $70.8 million in NRCS funding going through the Businesses Center, total funding comes to $890.3 million for Conservation Operations and $790.9 million for CTA – a slight increase over last year.

The final FY 2019 bill also protects farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loans to farmers and rural businesses that want to make energy efficient improvements. REAP supports the implementation of wind, solar, and other renewable energy systems, and also provides resources for energy audits and renewable resources development. The 2018 Farm Bill provides $50 million in mandatory funding for REAP per year, maintaining 2014 Farm Bill levels. Unfortunately, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) did not receive any mandatory funding in this farm bill, and was not provided with any funds through the appropriations process.

Research and Food Safety Outreach

The FY19 spending package makes exciting and historic investments in several key agricultural research and education grant programs. The bill provides the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program – USDA’s flagship sustainable agriculture research program – with $37 million for FY 2019. This funding represents a six percent increase from FY 2018 levels, and is the highest funding level in the program’s 30 year history. NSAC thanks appropriators, particularly Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), for championing increased funding for this landmark program and for continuing to invest in the advancement of American agriculture.

In addition to SARE, the Organic Transitions (ORG) research program also reached its highest funding level in the FY 2019 bill ($6 million). This important funding increase will allow ORG to ramp up its support of the growing contingent of American organic farmers and livestock producers. Increases were also provided for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which received an additional $15 million in grant funding. This brings AFRI funding to $415 million for FY 2019, continuing a trend of significant year-to-year increases for the program – a positive sign for the future of agricultural research and development.

Also provided with a small funding increase ($1 million) was the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). This brings total FSOP funding to $8 million for FY 2019. With an estimated 100,000 farmers impacted by the new regulations required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), this increase is particularly timely and welcomed. However, because this increase is so modest, it’s likely that additional increases will be needed as increasingly more producers are affected by new FSMA rules.

Socially Disadvantaged & Veteran Farmers and Ranchers

The 2018 Farm Bill included significant wins for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, including long-term increases to program funding. Among the most significant changes in the bill was the establishment of the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program, a new umbrella program designed to coordinate USDA training and outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers. Two important USDA grant programs are folded into FOTO: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka Section 2501”).

Section 2501 provides crucial services to our nations veteran farmers and farmers of color, increasing historically underserved communities’ access to and engagement with USDA programs, and has been a top NSAC appropriations priority for the last several years. The 2014 Farm Bill cut program grant funding in half, while also dramatically expanding the program to also serve military veterans.

With the goal of reversing these devastating cuts, NSAC worked with our partners to help secure an important victory for the program in FY 2018: its first allocation of discretionary funding ($3 million) in a decade. The FY 2019 spending bill approved last week once again provides the program with an additional $3 million in discretionary funding, which is combined with $15 million in mandatory funding (half of the $30 million available for FOTO in FY 2019) provided by the 2018 Farm Bill.

Rural Development and Local Food

NSAC was extremely glad to see that rural economic development and local/regional food systems were also protected by Congress in the FY 2019 spending bill. In most cases, level funding or small increases were provided to USDA Rural Development programs that help to drive economic growth and opportunities across rural America. Programs of note include, the Rural Business Development Grants (RBDG) program, Rural Cooperative Development Grants (RCDG), Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program (B&I), Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program, and Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG).

For the third year in a row, Congress provided VAPG with $15 million in discretionary funding on top of the mandatory funding provided for the program through the 2018 Farm Bill. Small-scale entrepreneurship is the one economic development strategy that consistently works in rural communities. Over half of all new jobs created in most rural areas come from small business ventures, and VAPG helps family farmers and ranchers build and expand these types of businesses in order to boost farm income and create jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Thanks to the leadership of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Congress also for the first time in over a decade provides discretionary funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP). RMAP provides organizations and entities engaged in rural economic development with loan and grant capital to support current rural owner-operator small businesses and prospective entrepreneurs with technical assistance and microloans. The FY 2019 spending package provides RMAP with $3 million. The 2018 Farm Bill, unfortunately, did not renew mandatory funding for the program (the 2014 Farm Bill provided it with $3 million per year), which had cast a cloud of uncertainty over the program’s future.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) received $2 million in funding, double Congress’ previous level of investment in the program. HFFI provides funding to address food deserts and other healthy food access issues.

Local food lovers and family farmers received one more big win in the omnibus, $5 million in additional discretionary funding for the Farm to School Program, which brings total funding to $10 million when combined with mandatory funding. This funding is critically important to continue connecting children with healthy local food, opening new markets for family farmers, and providing innovative agricultural education in schools across the country.

Farm Credit and Support Services

Access to credit is critical for farmers, particularly for those just beginning their careers and for producers not well served by the commercial lending sector. For example, beginning farmers and ranchers rarely have the cash on hand to purchase major equipment or suitable farmland –meaning that many rely on loans to get their food and farm businesses started. 

Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs play an important role by providing financing for producers unable to secure credit from private lenders. For decades, these programs have been vital in providing access to credit for small and mid-size family farms, and for operations run by beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

The FY 2019 spending levels for FSA Guaranteed and Direct Operating loans, as well as for Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans are maintained at FY 2018 levels as follows:

  • Direct Operating Loans: $1.53 billion
  • Direct Farm Ownership Loans: $1.5 billion
  • Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans: $2.75 billion
  • Guaranteed Operating Loans: $1.96 billion

Given the ongoing struggles of the American farm economy, including a prolonged period of low commodity prices, ensuring that FSA has adequate funds to fulfill loan demand is a critical part of the farm safety net. The 2018 Farm Bill increased loan caps across the board for all FSA loan programs, which will ultimately mean fewer and larger loans are made by FSA – unless appropriators provide additional funding through appropriations to meet any short-falls.

This significant policy change in the farm bill could dramatically impact the ability of new and other underserved farmers in particular to access credit and send a devastating ripple effect throughout the farm community. NSAC will continue to closely monitor the availability of FSA loan funding and work with our champions in Congress to make sure farmers have the access to credit and financial planning that they need to start and sustain their businesses.

The new funding bill also provides $2 million in first time funding for the Farm and Ranch Assistance Network – a grant program newly reauthorized in the farm bill that will support mental health and stress assistance to farmers, including farmer helplines, outreach, and support groups.

Proposed ERS/ NIFA Reorganization and Relocation

Appropriators strongly opposed USDA’s plan to relocate and recognize ERS and NIFA in their final FY 2019 bill. Language in the report specifically expresses concern about USDA’s plan, and asks the Department to “delay indefinitely” the proposal to reorganize ERS under the Chief Economist, and to provide a “detailed analysis” and cost estimates of the proposed move of both agencies.

NSAC applauds House and Senate appropriators for acknowledging the justified concerns raised by NSAC and other stakeholders in the agricultural community around this proposal. We also commend our champions in the House going further in attempting to block this opaque and unadvised process by reintroducing the Agriculture Research Integrity Act (ARIA). Championed by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), ARIA lays the legislative groundwork for Congress’ continued opposition to the ERS and NIFA relocation and restructuring.

Policy Riders

Over the last decade, it has become commonplace for appropriations bills to include legislative riders that set or modify policy, despite a general rule that appropriations bills are funding, not legislative vehicles. However, several policy riders of note were debated in the FY 2019 House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills, and an inability to reach agreement on them was one key reason the conferenced bill was not finalized before the September 30, 2018 deadline. Among the non-funding related issues holding up the final bill were riders on: horse slaughter, genetically engineered salmon, cell-based meat, e-cigarettes, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) retail sales data. Ultimately, the final minibus dropped the majority of these policy riders.

Next Steps

With FY 2019 agriculture spending now finally signed into law, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate can now turn their attention to developing bills for the next fiscal year. There is a lot that needs to happen before those bills are released and marked up later this spring, however, including the release of the President’s Budget Request (expected mid-March). Congress will also need to reach a deal on the overall budget caps and gather input from stakeholders across the country on FY 2020 priorities.

NSAC will be working with our member organizations and champions on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to build upon our wins from FY 2019 and secure continued funding for sustainable food and farm programs in the year ahead. To learn more about NSAC’s appropriations priorities for FY 2020, click here.


Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Carousel


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