March 10, 2010
Appropriations season is in full swing in Washington, and appropriators are deciding which programs to fund and which to cut. Hearings on funding levels for 2011 are occurring almost daily, as the House and Senate Appropriations Committees begin the annual process that generally results in markups in late spring, floor votes in the summer, and a final bill in the fall. Agricultural spending hearings are taking place on specific topics, but start with a hearing with the USDA Secretary covering the whole budget.
Last week, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, FDA, and Related Agencies heard testimony from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Subcommittee Chair Herb Kohl (D-WI) used the hearing to comment on six trends in the Obama budget: increases in child nutrition programs (especially WIC), support for food safety, information technology upgrades to the Farm Service Agency, increases in competitive agricultural research funds, foreign agricultural trade promotion, and support for healthy local food initiatives.
Kohl also noted that the President’s budget cuts conservation, rural development, and non-competitive research dollars.Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) expressed strong disappointment at the conservation cuts. “We worked very had and had major support for conservation programs in the 2008 Farm Bill,” Harkin said. “We should not be backing off from those strides.” Harkin pointed out that there was demand for conservation programs, noting that the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) turned down 54,000 applications from farmers due to lack of funding.
Secretary Vilsack responded that the USDA’s proposed budget would still allow more money to conservation programs than last year, just not as much of an increase as the farm bill directed. The Obama-Vilsack proposal would take the money cut from farm bill conservation programs and spend it on other USDA programs.
In addition, Vilsack reminded Subcommittee members that the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which administers the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and EQIP, had been “under the cloud of an audit because it didn’t oversee and manage its resources effectively. We tried to do too much too soon, and now we have to be accountable to the taxpayers,” Vilsack said. “We don’t want people who aren’t qualified to get money under the program.”
The basic strategy of reneging on mandatory funding agreements included in the Farm Bill and then defending the cuts with the canard that they are not really cuts or that USDA decisions to flat line conservation personnel even as the farm bill expanded conservation programs, thereby setting up the train wreck revealed in the audit, was frequently used by the Bush Administration and has now sadly been adopted by the Obama Administration.
Also at last week’s hearing, Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan highlighted USDA initiatives such as the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” Senator Harkin encouraged the USDA to continue pushing Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, saying, “younger people are getting involved in smaller-scale agriculture, things like fruits, fresh vegetables, meat, and processing. This is a growing movement all over the country, and it’s good for the local economy.”
With regard to organic agriculture, Merrigan stated that it has “multiple footholds at the USDA, but there is no overarching organic initiative.” Merrigan signaled the Department’s intent to step up organic enforcement efforts, noting that the USDA’s budget includes a $3.1 million increase for regulatory activities such as residue testing and unannounced visits to organic facilities. Merrigan also mentioned a recent investigation by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General which led to the criminal prosecution of a food processor and distributor who falsely labeled conventional food as organic.
NSAC is working hard to ensure that Congress funds programs that matter most to sustainable farmers, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Value-Added Producer Grants. To learn more about how you can support NSAC’s appropriations efforts,