House Subcommittee Debates 2014 Farm and Food Funding
April 26th, 2013
Over the last two weeks, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee held a series of hearings to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s and the Food and Drug Administration’s budget requests for fiscal year (FY) 2014. We previously posted about the first Subcommittee hearing of the year, which featured Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and the second Subcommittee hearing, which focused on USDA’s Research, Education and Economics mission area. The Subcommittee has since heard testimony from the USDA Undersecretaries for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; Food Safety; Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Natural Resources and Environment; and Rural Development. The subcommittee heard from the Food and Drug Administration today.
On Thursday, April 18, the Subcommittee heard from Undersecretary Ed Avalos regarding the Administration’s budget request for USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs mission area.
On Wednesday, April 25 and Thursday, April 26, the Subcommittee heard testimony from Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Doug O’Brien, Deputy Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Ann Mills, and Undersecretary of Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse. Also testifying at the hearings were Jason Weller, Acting Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Brandon Willis, Administrator of the Risk Management Agency.
Marketing and Regulatory Programs
Both Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) used the Marketing and Regulatory Programs hearing as an opportunity to discuss the importance of enforcing the contract fairness provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act. Both Representatives thanked the Department for working to protect producers, but expressed ongoing concern over deceptive practices by large meatpacking corporations in the livestock market. Recall that at the first Subcommittee hearing last week, Rep. Pingree had a conversation with Secretary Vilsack about contract reforms and fair competition in the poultry industry.
During last week’s rural development hearing, Representatives Chellie Pingree and Sanford Bishop (D-GA) asked Deputy Undersecretary O’Brien several questions about a few NSAC priority programs. Reps. Pingree and Bishop argued that the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program and the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) are two of the most critical tools that USDA has at its disposal to support rural economic development and local and regional food systems. Through VAPG and RMAP, USDA provides start-up capital, business planning, and training to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities to build businesses and develop the aggregation, distribution, and processing capacity needed to make those businesses successful.
Representative Pingree pointed out that the FY 2014 budget request maintains level funding for VAPG at a time when the market for locally- and regionally produced food is rapidly growing. She noted that funding for the program has been cut by 32 percent since 2010, and urged the Department and the Subcommittee to find ways to increase funding in FY 2014 beyond the $15 million requested.
Rep. Bishop similarly argued that RMAP has been “woefully underfunded.” The President’s FY 2014 budget requests only $1.4 million for RMAP loans and proposes to combine RMAP grants with several other rural development grant programs to create a consolidated Rural Business Cooperative Grant program. Rep. Bishop voiced concern that if RMAP grants were to be wrapped into a larger grant program, microenterprise development organizations would be “lost in the wash.”
Natural Resources and Environment
In response to a question from Rep. DeLauro regarding the impact of sequestration, Acting NRCS Chief Jason Weller noted that roughly 15,000 fewer producers will have access to USDA conservation programs in FY 2014 due to sequestration. Rep. DeLauro argued that NRCS conservation programs are “bedrock for our farmers” and that they are getting “short changed.”
Rep. Pingree asked a question about the success of the NRCS high tunnel program. Acting Chief Weller noted that the program is extremely popular, with more than $40 million going to producers for the construction of 7,000 high tunnels since the practice was first offered.
In discussing the steps that NRCS is taking to better support organic and sustainable producers in a response to a question from Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA), Acting Chief Weller spent some time detailing a three-year Conservation Innovation Grant project that NSAC and 10 NSAC member organizations are conducting to improve several critical components of NRCS programs.
Food and Drug Administration
Discussion of the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act rules was limited at today’s hearing on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) FY 2014 budget request. Rep. Pingree raised significant concerns about the costs of compliance with the proposed rules for small businesses, noting that FDA’s estimated compliance costs with the produce rule will put certain farmers out of business. She stressed that importance of having regulations that are appropriate for small farms and direct-market businesses, and that one size does not fit all. She noted that there were hard lessons learned with the implementation of food safety regulations in meat processing that obliterated the small meat processing sector, and that FDA should consider these past experiences when crafting the rules.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg responded that the agency is very mindful about those concerns and that FDA has done outreach to and met with different types of farmers. She added that the regulatory approach needs to be tailored and cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
Bipartisan House Organic Caucus Submits Letter on Appropriations Priorities
Last week, Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Richard Hanna (R-NY), and Ron Kind (D-MN) led a letter with twenty-one other members of the bipartisan House Organic Caucus outlining their appropriations priorities for FY 2014. The letter stressed the importance of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, the Organic Transitions Integrated Research Program, the National Organic Program, and the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives. The letter emphasized the critical role that these modest programs play in underpinning growth in organic agriculture and in creating opportunity for farmers.
Senate Conservation Funding Letter
This week, Senators Michael Bennett (D-CO) and Chris Coons (D-DE) led a letter with seventeen of their colleagues in support of farm bill conservation program funding. In recent years, the appropriations bill has reversed decisions made by Congress in the farm bill and cut farm bill conservation spending. This letter sends a clear signal in opposition to those types of backdoor conservation cuts.
On the Senate side, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold the following hearings in May:
- May 9: USDA Secretary Vilsack
- May 16: Research, Education and Economics; Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services; Rural Development; Natural Resources and Environment
- May 23: Food Safety Inspection Service; Marketing and Regulatory Programs; Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Service
Mark-Ups of the Agricultural Appropriations Bills
While no official time has been set yet for House and then Senate mark-up of the annual agricultural spending bills in subcommittee and then full committee, we currently expect such action to commence in June.
At this point in time, without any overall new budget deal between the House and Senate, we expect that the House will write its bill to a significantly lower overall spending total then allocated under the Budget Control Act, while the Senate is more likely to write its bill to a total funding level consistent with the Budget Control Act. That will make reaching a final agreement on this year’s government spending bills, including agriculture, more difficult. It is possible that a budget agreement may still be made, though there is little to no progress to report at this time.