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4 Important Policy Decisions that Will Impact Farmers, Food, and the Environment in 2015

September 5, 2014

Congress will return to Washington, D.C. next week after more than one month away during the August recess.  One of the few things on their legislative agenda before they break again in October is to pass a government funding bill to keep the government open beyond the end of the fiscal year (FY) on September 30.  If Congress does not pass a funding bill by September 30, the government will shut down, as it did on October 1, 2013.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are charge each year with developing 12 spending bills to cover the cost of operating the government.  In addition to funding Congress, the White House, and the judiciary, the bills are primarily organized by department and related agencies.  So, for example, there is a single bill for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, and related agencies; there is another bill for the Department of Defense; and so on.

As in previous years, Congress has struggled this year to pass all 12 appropriations bills in a timely manner.  Both the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2015 in May; however, neither the full House nor the full Senate have passed the bills since.  If Congress is to finalize FY 2015 appropriations legislation, the House and Senate will first need to negotiate the differences between the two agriculture appropriations bills.

At his point, the tide is quickly moving toward what is known as a “continuing resolution” (CR), which is an extension of the current year’s funding levels.  Congress uses these funding extensions when it cannot complete the task of passing new spending bills.  Most indications point toward Congress passing a 2 1/2 month CR in the coming weeks, meaning that existing funding levels and policy riders from FY 2014 would be extended until mid December.   Congress would then have several options:

  • Pass another CR to further extend FY 2014 funding levels;
  • Combine and pass all 12 of the FY 2015 appropriations bills as a package, known as an omnibus; or
  • Pass what is known as a “minibus,” where new FY 2015 funding bills are written for some agencies and and a CR is written for others (typically those agencies that administer controversial regulations or programs).

Looking toward Congress’ return next week and its work over the coming months, here are four appropriations decisions that will have a major impact on farmers, food, and the environment:

Free speech rights for livestock farmers

The agriculture appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee for FY 2015 contains a legislative provision, known as a “rider,” that severely limits USDA’s ability to protect farmers’ basic rights — like the right to free speech or freedom of association — in their dealings with large meatpacking and poultry companies.  The so-called Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rider, or “GIPSA rider,” was inserted into the House appropriations bill on behalf of a small handful of huge meat and poultry companies that have been able to use their market power to get away with fraudulent, deceptive, anti-competitive and abusive practices for years.

To address the longstanding problem of contract abuses by meatpacking corporations, the 2008 Farm Bill required USDA to write regulations, under the Packers and Stockyards Act, to provide basic protections for farmers who do business with these companies.  But when USDA tried to write the regulations in 2010, the meat and poultry companies launched a full-scale attack to get Congress to prevent USDA from finalizing those farmer protections.  The attack has continued ever since, and has focused on the annual appropriations process.

Only the House bill contains the FY 2015 GIPSA rider; the Senate bill does not.  Therefore, House and Senate appropriators must negotiate whether or not to include it in the final FY 2015 appropriations bill.  Starting next week, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will begin to make these decisions.  Just this week, a bipartisan group of 13 Senators delivered a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Appropriations Committee to urge them to exclude the GIPSA rider from final FY 2015 appropriations legislation.  For more background on the GIPSA rider, what it is and what exactly it would do, read our previous blog posts.

Funding for critical farm bill conservation programs

The House FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bill proposes to cut $109 million (more than 1 million acres) from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), $209 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and $60 million from the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP).  The agriculture appropriations bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would cut EQIP spending by $250 million, but would not cut funding for the other conservation programs.  All of these cuts are from the levels approved by Congress earlier this year when it passed the 2014 Farm Bill.

On top of conservation cuts, the House bill slashes the farm bill funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) by 40 percent, from $50 million to $30 million.  REAP helps farmers adopt renewable energy (such as wind and solar) and energy conservation technologies.

The ink barely had time to dry on the new farm bill before these attempts to unravel the decisions on conservation and renewable energy funding.  Not included in either appropriations bills are any similar proposed changes or cuts to commodity or crop insurance subsidies.

The proposed cuts to conservation and renewable energy programs would result in increased water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, and habitat loss, and should be rejected in upcoming negotiations.

Opportunities for beginning farmers to obtain training and start-up capital

The Senate FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bill provides $2.5 million in first-time funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (BFRIDA) program, which would provide limited-resource farmers with financial training and matched savings accounts so they can build assets and make needed purchases to get started in agriculture.  Individuals often enter agricultural production with know-how but needing more financial management training.  A beginning farmer or rancher participating in a BFRIDA program would be required to complete a financial training program while creating building assets through a matched savings plan.

With the recent Census figures showing the continued aging of our farm population, now could not be a more important time to launch this new resource to help more aspiring farmers start successful farm businesses.  Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill contains no funding for the BFRIDA program.  As House and Senate appropriators begin to negotiate final funding levels next week, we strongly urge them to adopt the Senate level of $2.5 million for the BFRIDA program.

Food safety training for small farmers and processors

Fortunately, both the House and Senate FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bills include $2.5 million in first-time funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), previously known as the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach and Technical Assistance program.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of proposing new, expansive food safety regulations for farmers and food processors under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  The FSMA-authorized Food Safety Outreach Program will provide farmers with the training they need, exactly when they need it, to implement and comply with new food safety rules.

By including first-time funding in their respective bills, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees made clear that food safety training is a priority for the 2015 fiscal year.  We hope that Congress will finalize FY 2015 appropriations legislation (most likely an omnibus or a minibus) that contains the $2.5 million for the BFRIDA program before September 30, or at the very least before mid December.  However, under a continuing resolution scenario, where FY 2014 funding levels are extended, FSOP would receive no funding.  This would be unfortunate under a 2 1/2 month CR, and would be devastating were Congress to pass a second CR in December.  Fortunately, Congress still has the opportunity to finalize new FY 2015 funding legislation that includes the $2.5 million for FSOP rather than extending FY 2014 funding levels beyond mid December.

Even if Congress were to pass a second CR in December rather than finalizing FY 2015 funding legislation, it has the authority to make adjustments (known as “anomalies”) to FY 2014 funding levels for a limited number of programs that it deems need more funding in the new fiscal year.  Under the CR scenario, we would strongly urge Congress to include FSOP and also the BFRIDA program on its list of funding anomalies and to provide at least $2.5 million for each program.  Without training resources available, the final food safety regulations will be a significant burden for small and midsize farmers and processors, and will inevitably fall far short of the goal of improving food safety.

Next Steps

For a detailed account of the FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee, click here.  For a detailed account of the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee, click here.  In addition to the four issues discussed above, each bill includes funding for other critical sustainable agriculture programs, such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), and Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program.  You can also download our latest appropriations chart, which compares funding levels for dozens of important farm and food programs across multiple years, including proposed FY 2015 levels.  Stay tuned for more information about ongoing appropriations negotiations and what you can do to help secure important sustainable agriculture priorities in the coming weeks!

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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