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Weekly Update – February 13, 2009

February 13, 2009


THIS WEEK

Economic Recovery Bill About to Become Law – Scorecard on Our Issues:  The House approved on a party-line vote the conference report for the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill Friday afternoon, with the Senate following Friday evening.  Early Friday morning the conference report became public and we quickly assessed our wins and losses.

In a major victory, the final bill includes an additional $500 million for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program, including $400 million in benefits and $100 million for state administrative costs.  While not the full amount we have been seeking, the inclusion of the much higher amount from the Senate bill plus an additional $20 million in actual WIC benefits is nonetheless quite significant.  This supplemental funding will bring the program closer to full funding for 2009, and limit the damage that could be done to farm bill conservation, energy, specialty crop and research programs when Congress takes up the omnibus appropriations bill for 2009 when they return to DC after next week’s recess.  Each dollar of WIC funding in the stimulus bill is one less dollar that needs to be found from other sources in the omnibus appropriations bill in order to make WIC whole for 2009.  Big thanks to everyone who responded to action alerts over the last several weeks — your actions made a difference!

In a partial victory, the final bill includes additional supplementing funding for $173 million worth of direct farm operating loans.  Gone from the final bill, however, was a Senate bill provision for $200 million in direct farm ownership loans, $100 million for guaranteed ownership loans, and $50 million for guaranteed operating loans.  The shortage in direct farm ownership loan funds is particularly severe, making the deletion of the Senate funds especially disappointing.  We hope that the upcoming omnibus appropriations bill will rectify the problem and will redouble our efforts toward that end.

The final bill mirrors the Senate bill in providing for nearly $3 billion in Rural Business and Industry loan guarantees.  Combined with regular funding, this additional money will bring the program up to about $2.5 billion a year in loan guarantees for each of the next two years.  As a result of a 2008 Farm Bill provision championed by NSAC, five percent ($125 million) of this amount will be targeted to local and regional food enterprises that process, distribute, aggregate, store, and market foods produced either in-state or transported less than 400 miles from the origin of the product.

Sadly, the final bill did not accommodate funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program or the Value-Added Producer Grants program.  Earlier in the week, USDA Secretary Vilsack indicated his support for a provision granting him the flexibility to use some of the bill’s rural development funding for these programs, but the flexibility provision did not make it into the conference agreement.

Also gone from the final bill are Senate bill provisions that would have provided $50 million in supplemental funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).  Another Senate provision did make it into the final bill though — $100 million for school lunch cafeteria equipment improvements, including the possibility of updating kitchens to be able to accommodate fresh and local product.

The final bill also includes $290 million for the Emergency Watershed and Flood Prevention program, including most importantly, a minimum of $145 million for the purchase of long-term easements to take frequently flooded land out of agricultural production in a fashion similar to the Wetlands Reserve Program.

Cotton, Rice, and Wheat Senators Push for Weaker Payment Limit Rules:  In late December, the Bush Administration issued rules to implement farm bill changes to commodity payment rules.  On the crucial issue of gaping loopholes in current rules that purport to target payments to individuals who are actively engaged in farming, NSAC characterized the new Bush rules as nibbling around the edges of reform while leaving the major loophole in place.

On Monday, February 9, a group of 23 senators, including most southern senators and four from wheat-producing states (Baucus, Roberts, Crapo, and Risch), signed on to a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack saying the Bush rules went too far and should be reined back in by the Obama Administration.  The Senators note correctly that the Bush interim final rule went further than required by the specific statutory language of the farm bill.  What their letter did not say, however, is that in the farm bill Congress also directed USDA to revise the actively engaged in farming rules, albeit without specifying whether they should be tightened or loosened.

Specifically, the Senators requested review of an interim final rule published by USDA on December 29, 2008 in the Federal Register to implement the 2008 farm bill payment limitation and eligibility provisions.  Following the review, they want even the weak reforms added by the Bush Administration to be withdrawn or watered down.

The public comment period for this rule lasts until early April.  NSAC will be sending out an action alert to members and supporters in mid-March.  We will also be working with pro-reform Senators on a letter urging the Secretary to strengthen the Bush rule.

For background information on payment limitations and eligibility requirements, see this section of our grassroots farm bill guide.

Letter Calls for Revocation of Naturally-Raised Label:  On Friday, February 13, 2009, NSAC joined with other farm, consumer and environmental groups to urge USDA Secretary Vilsack to revoke the final, but not yet effective, rule issued on its very last day by the Bush Administration creating a misleading and deceptive “naturally-raised” USDA meat label.  The letter is here on our website.

Budget Request for Conservation:  NSAC joined 20 other Conservation Coalition member groups in a letter to Secretary Vilsack urging that the USDA budget request for 2010 include full funding for 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs and a more adequate funding level for technical assistance.  The letter is posted here on our website.

EQIP Environmental Assessment:  On Friday, February 13, NSAC submitted comments to USDA questioning the legality and adequacy of its environmental assessment of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.  The document is on our website here.


USDA NEWS

Vilsack I – Farmers Market Consortium Remarks:  Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spent almost an hour on Tuesday sharing his vision of the future of agricultural policy at a meeting of the USDA Farmers Market Consortium, attended by NSAC staff.  He outlined four major policy aims he has set for his Department:

  • “A safe, sufficient, sustainable, and nutritious food supply for all.”  Vilsack emphasized that the food supply must be not only sufficient in quantity, but also wholesome in quality and raised in a sustainable manner.  His presentation was in stark contrast to the usual mantra stating that the US has the safest, most abundant and affordable food and agriculture.

Throughout his remarks, Vilsack reminded us of the fundamental importance of agriculture to our well-being, and suggested a number of ways in which agricultural policy bears directly on other areas of public policy that are given a higher profile by many policy makers and the media.  For example, he highlighted the relationship between child nutrition and long-term national health costs.  He said developing a distribution system that can supply schools with a steady, sustainable supply of fresh fruits and vegetables is the central challenge for child nutrition policy.

  • “Twenty-first century rural communities.” Vilsack shared a few anecdotes about his personal experience with farmers markets and the sense of connection to the land and the community they foster.  Drawing a distinction between sustainable agriculture and conventional agriculture, he said he believes the greatest challenge for sustainable agriculture is to develop a full-blown distribution system parallel to the one in place for conventional agriculture.

He also said the federal government should help strengthen rural communities by ensuring they have broadband internet access and greater off-farm employment opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

  • USDA should “lead the nation in the energy and climate change discussion.” Vilsack emphasized that recent U.S. energy policy has not been sustainable, and said he regards climate change as an opportunity for more sustainable approaches to agriculture, which can help sequester carbon in the soil.

He also said the federal government should help strengthen rural communities by ensuring they have broadband internet access and greater off-farm employment opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

  • USDA must have “a modern workforce, and a modern workplace.” Vilsack acknowledged that USDA has a “shameful” civil rights record, which must be reversed.  He also said USDA’s computer equipment is so outdated as to significantly impede the work of the Department.  Many in Washington do not appreciate the importance of USDA’s role, he said, even though every significant government policy bears a direct relationship to agriculture, including health care, energy and climate change policies, and foreign policy.

Vilsack II – One Food Safety Agency:  In remarks at a meeting of the U.S. Rice Federation this week, Secretary Vilsack sent a shock wave through the food and agriculture community by commenting that he was in favor of a single food safety agency, adding that he was unsure if it should be at USDA, FDA, or housed at a new independent agency.  The idea of a single agency or of stripping USDA of its food safety domain over meat, poultry, and eggs has been heavily opposed by agribusiness, but a few legislators, largely led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) have championed the call for a single food agency.  The statements came as part of commentary on the recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter.

Vilsack III – The People’s Garden:  Commemorating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Secretary Vilsack, with jackhammer in hand, broke ground on “The People’s Garden” – a community garden named after Lincoln’s reference to USDA as “The People’s Department.”  At the ground-breaking ceremony, (pun intended), Vilsack announced the goal of creating a community garden at each USDA facility worldwide.

Vilsack IV – Washington Post Interview:  Secretary Vilsack sat down with Jane Black, Food Columnist for the Washington Post, to talk about his position and his vision for transforming USDA.  His answers included partnering with local school districts and states to do a better job to provide nutrition options at school and supporting strategies that will facilitate local food distribution.  The full interview can be accessed here.

Conservation Program Conference Calls Revised Schedule:  Technical difficulties beset the first of several scheduled USDA net conferences on farm bill conservation programs.  The new schedule for the phone calls to discuss key changes to conservation program rules is as follows:

February 17:  Technical Service Providers

February 18:  Regional Equity and State Technical Committees

February 19:  Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, and Agricultural Management Assistance Program

February 23:  Wetlands Reserve Program

February 24:  Grasslands Reserve Program and Healthy Forest Reserve Program

February 25:  Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program

All net conferences will be held from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Eastern Standard Time (EST). The call-in number is 1-800-857-3202, password 6240511.

Annual Farm Income and Costs Report:  USDA’s Economic Research Service issued its annual Farm Income and Costs report for 2009 on Thursday, February 12.  Highlights of the report include:

  • Net cash income, net value-added, and net farm income are all forecast to decline in 2009 from the record levels they reached in 2008, but to remain above the average for the last 10 years.
  • Total farm expenses are forecast to decline for the first time since 2002.
  • Crop receipts are forecast to decline for the first time since 1999.
  • Government payments are forecast to fall in 2009 to their lowest level since 1997.

WTO NEWS

Ag Chair Talks Tough:  On Thursday, February 12, WTO agriculture chair Crawford Falconer indicated agricultural trade talks will continue whether or not the Obama Administration is ready to deal.  The chair indicated that he is concentrating on getting the views of individual countries and blocks of countries on his December 6 revised draft of the agriculture negotiating text.  The New Zealander is quoted as saying “I get as much information that I need to have so that, irrespective of whether the U.S. or anybody else is ready to engage, there is capacity for making progress which can then, at the right moment, be conveyed collectively,” adding, “What I think is unacceptable is that we sit on our behinds and do nothing until somebody has a green light and says I’m ready to participate.”  Ouch!

Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, President Obama’s nominee to be US Trade Representative, will have his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee in late February or early March.


DULY NOTED

Ethanol Wars:  This week the Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth and others issued a biofuels platform that calls for a freeze on the federal renewable fuels mandate for conventional ethanol and the phase out of the large federal ethanol tax credit.  The platform calls for replacing the credit with subsidies that are scaled in accordance with a fuel’s relative environmental and public health merits.  It also called for proceeding with caution on “advanced biofuels” to avoid unintended consequences, calling current policy a “blind rush.”

The National Corn Growers Association was quick to respond, citing studies showing positive environmental and climate change outcomes from ethanol and citing the Keystone Alliance report issued in January, with participation from several major environmental organizations, which they characterize as showing the corn production is becoming more sustainable.  Also lurking behind this week’s debate is one from last week over a new study from researchers at the University of Minnesota showing larger greenhouse gas emissions from corn ethanol relative to gasoline, in part because of a land use change from Conservation Reserve Program retirement to corn production.  The NCGA and ethanol trade associations dismiss the idea that much CRP land will be used for corn production.


Categories: General Interest


One Response to “Weekly Update – February 13, 2009”

  1. [...] infrastructure in rural areas, as well as other priorities. For now, say the good folks at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, we can be glad that the stimulus package includes some money for farm loans (though not as much as [...]

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