NSAC's Blog


Weekly Update – July 27-31, 2009

August 4, 2009


ACTION NEEDED

Remember to Take Action During the August Recess! August recess is a great opportunity for NSAC member organizations to meet with and get to know their members of Congress while they are at home in the district or the state.  It’s an opportunity to educate them about your organization and our issues without the expense of a plane ticket to DC.  Their schedules get full fast, so act soon.  For some more pointers and talking points to use during in-district meetings or at scheduled Town Halls, please visit the Take Action page of NSAC’s website.

LAST WEEK

Food Safety Bill Defeated, then Passed:  On Wednesday, July 28, the House brought H.R. 2749, The Food Safety Enhancement Act, to the floor under a suspension of the rules with very limited debate and no amendments allowed.  None of the amendments proposed in the Kaptur-Farr-Hinchey-Jackson et. al. letter, which was endorsed by NSAC and the National Organic Coalition, were substantively incorporated into the final bill.

During a series of statements before the vote, Representative John Dingell (D-MI), Chairman Emeritus of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and other supporters of the legislation praised the bill as a strong consumer protection measure.  Representative Colin Peterson (D-MN), Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, who successfully negotiated on behalf of livestock and grain, sugar and other commodity interests with the Energy and Commerce Committee from the week before until the night before the vote, voiced his support for the final bill, stating that “we were able to address the concerns of the livestock and grain industries.”

Some opponents and supporters of the bill criticized the lack of opportunity for amendments to be considered and expressed concern about the increased regulatory burdens on produce farmers and small businesses, among other issues.  NSAC, joined by the National Organic Coalition, spelled out its objections in a letter to the House members.

The vote tally was 280-150, 6 votes short of the 2/3 majority needed to pass the bill under suspension.  At least 14 Representatives, and possibly more, who voted no were specifically aligned with the NSAC set of objections, while others who voted yes also did so with reservations that reflected our concerns.

Almost immediately after the vote, House leadership asked the Rules Committee to hold an emergency session to remove the bill from the suspension calendar and issue a closed rule, still allowing no amendments, sending the bill back to the floor, but this time only requiring a majority vote.

On Thursday afternoon, the House once again brought H.R. 2749 to the floor, this time with a slightly more extensive debate time followed by an anti-climatic simple majority vote.  Importantly, during the debate, Representatives Sam Farr (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-WA) engaged in a floor colloquy with Dingell that addressed several of NSAC’s concerns including the fee structure, tracking system, and effect on conservation and organic practices.  You can read the colloquy in the Congressional Record here.  The bill passed the chamber with a final vote of 283-142.

Despite being assured of victory, but still leaving no stone unturned, Dingell issued a letter to the full House on Thursday morning attempting to debunk the NSAC/NOC position.  Our response to his letter, which incorporates his letter followed by our responses, was issued after the final vote as a way to begin to position ourselves for a House conference with the Senate on this legislation later this year, assuming the Senate takes up the bill this fall.  NSAC will be working to incorporate protections for small, mid-size, and sustainable farmers into the Senate version of the bill.

House Hearing on Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements:  On Wednesday, July 29, the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing to examine the current California Leafy Greens Handler Marketing Agreement (CALGMA) and the potential impacts of a proposed USDA national marketing agreement for leafy greens.  Committee Chair Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) echoed the concerns of small and organic farmers regarding the “costs and scientific justification for some of CALGMA’s requirements” and acknowledged that “it may make more scientific sense to focus attention on the processing, packaging and distribution of Ready-to-Eat produce.”

Witness Dale Coke, a farmer and member of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, an NSAC member group, expressed serious concerns about the economic and environmental impacts of CALGMA.  Other witnesses included Rayne Pegg, Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service at USDA; Michael Taylor, Senior Advisor at FDA; Caroline Smith-DeWaal, Director of Food Science at the Center for Science in the Public Interest; Scott Horsfall, Chief Executive Officer of the California Leafy Greens Marketing Board; and Kelly Cobb, a survivor of E. coli poisoning.  Written testimony from the hearing can be found here.

THIS WEEK

Senate Set to Vote on Agriculture Appropriations:  The Senate is set to vote on the FY 10 agricultural appropriations bill on Monday, August 3.  Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has filed a cloture petition to limit debate.  The cloture petition will be voted on early Monday evening.

The bill includes increased investment in programs to stimulate the rural economy, including the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance, Rural Coop Development Grants, and the Value-Added Producer Grant programs.  The bill also keeps the most of the 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs and all of the other farm bill mandatory programs whole.  It would increase by nearly 50 percent the funding for the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative competitive grants program, but provide just marginal increases for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education competitive grants and no increases for Organic Transitions competitive grants.  Farm credit funding for ownership and operating loans provided by the bill represent a significant increase over regular appropriations for the current year, but do not match the additional supplemental funding that was necessary this year and will likely be needed again next year.

NSAC continues to work to reverse the decision of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee not to fund the Office of Advocacy and Outreach.  The new Office was established by the 2008 Farm Bill to coordinate USDA policies, programs, and outreach with respect to minority farmers and farmworkers as well as small farms and beginning farmers and ranchers.  Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) has filed an amendment to fund the office at the same $3 million asked for by the President and provided in the House version of the bill.  As we go to press the staff for Chairman Kohl (D-WI) are not indicating support, but we hope that discussions will continue through the weekend and into Monday to work out a way to get the important new office off the ground.

Our chart comparing House and Senate funding levels for key programs is available here.

NSAC Meets in Lawrence, Kansas! On August 2-4, NSAC staff and member organization representatives will be convening in Lawrence, Kansas to discuss and develop action plans on 2009 NSAC policy priorities, visit area farms courtesy of meeting host, the Kansas Rural Center and kickoff strategy discussions around the 2012 Farm Bill.  D.C. NSAC staff will be back in the office on Wednesday.

USDA NEWS

Conservation Stewardship Interim Final Rule Released:  On Wednesday, July 29, USDA issued the interim final rule (IFR) for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) in the Federal Register.  NSAC issued a press release Wednesday morning.  NSAC will be issuing an appeal for public comment, with key talking points, in early September, well before the September 28 deadline for public comment.

The Department also issued a press release on Friday, July 31.  According to the release: “USDA is particularly interested in the public’s comments on several aspects of the rule, including the best procedures for establishing annual payment rates; weighting ranking factors to maximize environmental benefits; and determining contract renewal criteria, state allocations and priority resource concerns.”

We expect that USDA will issue a sign-up announcement next week sometime, and rumor has it that the 2009 sign-up period will be from August 10 through September 30.

The IFR is fairly brief and fairly general.  The nuts and bolts details concerning eligibility, ranking, priority resource concerns, preferred conservation activities and practices, and payments, are all in the CSP Program Manual, the Conservation Measurement Tool, Conservation Activity Job Sheets, and other implementation documents that are not part of the rule per se.

Perhaps the biggest issue settled before the IFR was finalized was a debate between USDA and the White House Office of Management and Budget over whether any unused CSP acreage in a given year stayed with the program and “rolled over” into subsequent years, or whether those acres and the funding they represent were lost to the program and returned to the general treasury.   Acreage in other acreage-based conservation programs, including the Conservation, Wetlands and Grasslands Reserve Programs, remain with the program.  However, OMB argued that CSP should operate like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (which is not acreage-based) and money should be returned to the Treasury.

The IFR includes the results of a compromise between the two agencies.  OMB won in the sense that there is no roll over of acres, and unused acreage in any given year, as well as acres for which contracts are terminated due to death, illness, drought, economic distress or any of the many other reasons that some percentage of conservation contracts in any given program are terminated each year, will be lost to the program.

However, USDA gained an important concession for 2009 only.  Given that the fiscal year is almost over (it ends September 30), the IFR allows for NRCS to accept short, basic applications from farmers wanting to enroll in the program through the end of September, but permits the full application and ranking process to occur after the start of the new fiscal year without jeopardizing the 12.8 million acres set aside by the farm bill for 2009 and each subsequent year.

It is important to note that whether farmers sign up during this less than two month window for the 2009 sign up, or wait until after October 1 and sign up this winter or spring, the first CSP payments for both the 2009 and 2010 class of CSP farmers will not be made until October 2010.

We will be issuing more detailed thoughts about the IFR in coming weeks.  Look for a sign-up notice from USDA sometime next week, and detailed information about that in next week’s edition of the Weekly Update.

In the meantime, the most important thing for now for farmers to know is that to be in the first group of Conservation Stewardship Program farmers they will need to complete a preliminary application at their NRCS office at some point between August 14 and September 30.  Farmers should also be aware that NRCS has developed a farmer self screening tool to help farmers decide if CSP is right for them.

USDA Announces Increase in Payments for Dairy Product Purchases to Support Prices:  On Friday, July 31, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA will increase the amount paid for dairy products through the Dairy Product Price Support Program.  USDA will pay increased prices for 150 million pounds of non-fat dry milk and an additional 75 million pounds of cheese to remove product from the market and expects that the purchases will increase dairy farmers’ revenues by $243 million.  USDA is working with the Department of State to find international feeding programs that can take the excess US dairy products.

Unfortunately, unlike the Milk Income Loss Contract Program which provides a capped payment that helps small and mid-size farmers, this increase in the USDA purchase price will flow to all dairies, even large expanding dairies.  One example of large-scale dairy expansion in the face of increased public funding for price supports is the MilkSource Holdings, Inc. in Wisconsin which is currently constructing facilities to increase its 13,200 cow herd by another 4,000 cows.  The company has also received $18 million in industrial development revenue bonds from a local town.

NRCS Announces Ag Water Projects:  On Thursday, July 30 NRCS announced the distribution of $58 million in FY2009 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funds to 63 Agricultural Water Enhancement Program (AWEP) projects in 21 states.  The program, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill as a component of EQIP, funds projects involving farmers and ranchers intended to conserve ground and surface water or improve water quality.  Project proposals for priority areas generally received higher ranking and included agricultural land going under conversion from irrigated to dry land farming; projects that help producers meet regulatory requirements; and projects located where there is a high percentage of agricultural land and producers in a region or area.

California received $18 million, the largest single share of the funding, for 15 projects focused on dairy waste and irrigation system improvements.  Most of the projects, including many east of the Mississippi River, focused on irrigation system improvements.  One project, submitted by the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, targeted irrigation improvements and irrigation efficiency on small, organic and sustainable farms operated by underserved farmers in northeast Georgia.  More information is provided on the AWEP website.

CCPI National Awards Listed:  While most of the farm bill funding for the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative is allocated and awarded at the state level, up to 10 percent of the funds can be awarded by the national NRCS office for larger multi-state projects.  The four national CCPI awards for 2009 are now listed on the CCPI website.

Trout Unlimited will coordinate $350,000 of EQIP and WHIP funds in the Driftless area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  The Nature Conservancy will lead a native pasture restoration effort in Minnesota and the Dakotas with access to $186,000 of EQIP funding.  A Conservation Cropping Systems Project, also in the Dakotas, will work with $100,000 in EQIP financial assistance, and the Pinchot Institue will use $25,000 in EQIP funds to provide financial assistance related to ecosystem markets in Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Listings of state funded projects are in some cases on state NRCS websites.  NRCS has told NSAC that they hope to have a more complete national listing of state CCPI projects at some point in the future.

BFRDP Awards to be Announced Soon:  We are told that the 2009 awards for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program will be made fairly soon.  Some final total figures on applications are now available.  A total of 194 applications were made for a total request of about $105 million.  The Farm Bill provided $18 million for the program for 2009.  Of the 194, 180 were standard proposals, 8 were educational enhancement teams proposal, and 6 were “clearinghouse” proposals.  According to one of the program managers, based on peer review panel discussions and recommendations, this was an extremely strong group of applications.

DULY NOTED

Home-grown Research Article Published in Agriculture and Human Values:  This week an article was published in the journal, Agriculture and Human Values, by NSAC and Organic Farming Research Foundation staffer, Ariane Lotti.  The article is based on the research that Ariane did for her Master’s thesis in the Basque Country of Spain with a pig farmer.  The article draws upon the case study to discuss the characteristics of alternative agriculture and food movements and their connection to the conventional agriculture system.  The original publication is available at www.springerlink.com by clicking here.

What Do Cookie Monster, Broccoli, and Secretary Vilsack Have in Common? All three are part of a new Public Service Announcement promoting healthy eating habits to children sponsored by Sesame Workshop and the USDA.  The PSA was unveiled on Friday at the REACH Child Nutrition, Food, and Health regional meeting in Boston and features Secretary Vilsack, alongside Cookie Monster and Broccoli, discussing the importance of eating a “rainbow” of foods, especially fruits and vegetables.


Categories: General Interest


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