October 25, 2019
With the authorization phase of the Farm Bill concluded, attention has turned this year to implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. During this phase, Congress continues to oversee and fund implementation, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with implementing the programs and policies authorized under the new farm bill. Congressional oversight is critically important to ensure that the intent of the legislation is followed. During implementation, it is also important for farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders to be involved so that farm bill programs are effective in meeting their needs.
Last week, both the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee held hearings to review USDA’s implementation activities during the first 10 months of the 2018 Farm Bill. While both of the hearings’ main focus was on implementation, both chambers continued to raise questions on other relevant and urgent issues – including the relocation of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), and whether USDA is purposefully suppressing climate change research.
USDA Deputy Secretary Stephen Censky was the only witness before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry during their hearing on “Implementing the 2018 Farm Bill.” The hearing covered an array of topics, including conservation, crop insurance, dairy, biofuels, hemp, and federal nutrition programs.
Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate applauded conservation programs and changes made to crop insurance within the 2018 Farm Bill. However, Ranking Member, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) did raise some concerns regarding the implementation of certain farm bill provisions that align with NSAC priorities for sustainable agriculture, including local food systems, organic production, and programs supporting beginning producers and farmers of color. Specifically, Sen. Stabenow raised concerns that some of these new provisions, like the Office of Urban Agriculture, have yet to be implemented.
Additionally, Sen. Stabenow expressed concern regarding research, both in terms of USDA’s failure to publicize and disseminate important climate change research and the lack of capacity to implement farm bill research programs due to the relocation of ERS and NIFA, echoing concerns raised by NSAC over the past year. More on that topic below.
Conservation – Conservation took a front seat at last week’s hearing, commanding attention from both sides of the aisle. The Committee’s Chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), stressed how important voluntary conservation programs are, and cited improvements made under the 2018 Farm Bill. However, new regulations have yet to be released that would implement many of these changes to programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
With new CRP regulations expected to be in place later this year, Deputy Secretary Censky was able to share a rough timeline for CRP sign-ups for the coming year: general sign-ups should begin in December, Grasslands Initiative sign-ups early next year, and Soil Health and Income Protection Program (SHIPP) pilot sign-up in the spring. With the increase in the CRP enrollment cap authorized under the new farm bill, USDA is expecting the upcoming 2020 CRP sign-up to be the biggest one yet. Censky also confirmed that practices available for Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR30) will also be eligible under CRP.
The agency is also allowing sign-up for Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) provisions that were transferred from the previous farm bill to the 2018 Farm Bill. CREP regulations are being updated with the goal of publishing them this fall.
Crop Insurance – The Chairman remarked on the difficult growing season that many producers have faced this year due to a historic wet spring and flooding, and touted the important risk management tools included in the 2018 Farm Bill to help farmers mitigate the risks and losses from unpredictable weather events. Deputy Secretary Censky informed the Committee that USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) has done research on irrigation practices for crop insurance and hopes to have coverage available for the 2020 crop insurance year, with changes expected to be announced by the end of the year.
Commodities and Dairy – Unsurprisingly, dairy support programs and the distribution of Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments (i.e. direct payments to farmers impacted by the trade war) repeatedly came up in comments from both Republican and Democratic Senators in last week’s hearing. Deputy Secretary Censky shared additional sign-up information on Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC), specifically that sign-ups for 2020 program payments are now open. The capacity of the Farm Service Agency (FSA) – which administers these programs – was also questioned by members of the Committee, to which Deputy Secretary Censky responded that there is an “aggressive hiring plan” in place that includes requesting direct hire authority from the Office of Personnel Management to hire for local offices.
There was also interest from Republican Senators on the status of the investigation into the fire at a Kansas meatpacking plant, but the investigation is still ongoing and there were no further updates.
Nutrition and Other Issues – Senate Democrats expressed their frustration with USDA’s repeated actions to make partisan changes to nutrition assistance programs that were outright rejected by Congress in passing the 2018 Farm Bill. The Administration has repeatedly attempted to dismantle federal nutrition programs by limiting eligibility for families to receive benefits, with several proposed regulations currently under review by the Department. For more on these changes, see information from our anti-hunger partners.
In addition to SNAP, there were other hot button topics that came up during last week’s hearing. Biofuel production received bipartisan attention and Deputy Secretary Censky assured the Committee that USDA is actively working to fulfill their role in establishing the biofuel mandate. And on new changes made in the farm bill that would legalize hemp production, Censky stated that the agency expects to release the plans for new hemp regulations within a couple of weeks for public comment.
And on the other side of Capitol Hill, the Biotechnology, Horticultural and Research Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee held its own hearing with Dr. Scott Hutchins, Deputy Undersecretary for USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area, as the lone witness. Deputy Undersecretary Hutchins (who has yet to be formally confirmed by Congress) was immediately taken to task over the relocation of ERS and NIFA—a move that was made with little to no oversight from federal procedural rules and has been broadly opposed by Members of Congress and many key stakeholders in the agriculture and research community. Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D-VI), Chair of the Subcommittee, began the hearing citing great disappointment with USDA’s response, or lack thereof, to the Committee’s inquiries about the relocation.
The relocation of ERS and NIFA has been a focus for this Committee in the past, where witnesses testified that the relocation would diminish our country’s agricultural research capacity at one of the most critical times in U.S. agriculture. Current reports show ERS and NIFA at 65 and 76 percent vacancy rate, respectively – alarming statistics that Rep. Plaskett cited at the hearing. What’s more, ERS and NIFA have been undermined at a critical time when the agencies need to focus on implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. In order to do this vital work, Rep. Plaskett noted, both agencies must quickly be restored to optimum capacity to alleviate gaps in service and also demanded there be “no lip service” when it comes to accounting for the agencies’ function. The Committee indicated that it would continue to hold USDA’s feet to the fire should both ERS and NIFA continue to suffer diminished capacity and function.
In addition to putting USDA on notice, Rep. Plaskett inquired whether USDA considered in its cost-benefit analysis the value of lost research, expertise, and institutional knowledge. According to the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association’s (AAEA) report, replacing such highly qualified staff at ERS can take four years or more and will cost between $141 and $203 million in lost research. Dr. Hutchins noted that this was not considered as a factor in their analysis. Instead, he stressed, the agency took a “fact-based approach” examining costs in Washington, D.C. versus costs in the new location – a process still clouded with questions and uncertainties.
When asked how USDA plans to replace such highly valued expertise at ERS and NIFA, Dr. Hutchins stressed the agency’s focus on taking care of its employees. Currently, USDA is undergoing an accelerated hiring process and for continuity, the agency has ushered in the return (at least temporarily) of retired employees to help new staff get up to speed.
Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-NY) expressed concerns about the delay in grant funds to awarded institutions in light of the relocation of NIFA and the loss of program and award management staff tasked to oversee grant disbursement. Similarly, Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) pointed out that organizations in his district – including NSAC members Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) and Agriculture and Land Based Training Association (ALBA), both awarded OREI and ORG grants – are still awaiting funds and pressed Dr. Hutchins to explain the delays. Dr. Hutchins acknowledged that the agency has a hill to climb when it comes to award management and that there will be delays of about two months compared to previous years. He assured, however, that NIFA is committed to releasing all funds no later than March 2020 – a staggering six months after the awards were made.
Climate change research also came under heavy scrutiny by members of the Subcommittee. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) challenged whether USDA was committed to serious research, especially research on climate change and the consequences of inaction. Further, she pointed out that research funding for USDA’s climate hubs has markedly declined since 2016 from $1.2 billion to $512 million in 2019. Given these figures, she contended that climate research can hardly be seen as a priority at USDA, and requested to see – in writing – what reports have been published and what outreach to farmers on the topic has been conducted. Dr. Hutchins insisted there is no intent at the agency to diminish climate change research.
Not to be overlooked, the Agriculture Research Service (ARS) – the agency tasked with carrying out much of USDA’s agriculture research, especially around climate change – is also suffering staggering staff shortages. According to Rep. Kim Schrier (D-WA), there are 270 open ARS positions in the Pacific region and over 700 nationwide. With these unfilled positions, critical research remains undone and farmers ultimately suffer due to lack of new tools and technology, and farmer/researcher partnerships. Dr. Hutchins, while conceding to the high level of vacancies across the agency, told Rep. Schrier that they have identified ten operation priorities to be filled at ARS and are working through the process to find and hire new scientists.
Despite the familiar talking points from Dr. Hutchins, painting a picture that all will be well with the agencies, the fact remains that grant funds, and thus important research, will be delayed for months. With few employees left, the challenge remains to fill and train highly specialized program staff, a process that could take years.
Committee Chair Rep. Plaskett ended the hearing noting that Dr. Hutchins’ answers did not provide any more clarity to the process or on whether the plan for relocation was well thought out. Despite this, she offered the Committee’s support to quickly recover ERS and NIFA function.
NSAC continues to share these concerns and was disappointed, and alarmed by the Administration’s cavalier response to such a devastating blow to two of our country’s core research agencies. In response to the hearing, NSAC joined the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), American Statistical Association (ASA), and National Farmers Union (NFU) to release a statement voicing continued opposition to the relocation and urging others to join in this fight:
“The harm done to American farmers, rural America, and the agricultural economy at the hands of USDA is deeply troubling, but not irreversible. Many House and Senate appropriators have for months stood in strong, unified, and outright opposition to the relocation. We stand firmly with that position in support of farmers, consumers, and science-based agriculture research made possible by the hard-working employees at ERS and NIFA. All individuals and organizations who rely on agricultural research and economics—and support good government—should join us.”