March 3, 2015
Last week, the House Subcommittee on Agriculture Appropriations held three hearings to examine the Obama Administration’s budget requests for fiscal year (FY) 2016.
The House and Senate Agriculture Committees also held hearings. The House Committee held two hearings on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), while the Senate Committee held a hearing to examine the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) implementation of the 2014 Farm Bill.
Hearings continue this week, with House Agriculture Appropriations taking up spending for the Food and Drug Administration and USDA’s research and marketing agencies and Senate Agriculture taking up the Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule.
Below is a summary of some of the major discussion topics of interest from last week.
Food Safety Outreach Program
On Wednesday, February 25, the House Subcommittee heard from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) talked with the Secretary about the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), a training program to help small and mid-size farms and small local food processing facilities comply with new proposed food safety regulations. USDA is requesting $5 million for FSOP in FY 2016, which is twice the funding level provided last year. NSAC strongly supports this request. Rep. Pingree noted that USDA is partnering with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the initial round of grants to establish a national coordination center and several regional centers for food safety training.
Rep. Pingree expressed concern that grant funding may be limited to regional centers rather than to organizations that work directly with small and mid-sized farmers and food businesses. In response, Secretary Vilsack said, “I would hope that NIFA will ensure that the work will get beyond the universities. I can assure you that that these non-governmental organizations will be part of the competitive grant process.” NSAC appreciates Secretary Vilsack’s remarks, and strongly believes that farmer- and community-based organizations are best suited to provide the outreach, education, and training for our small farms and food businesses to help them comply with the new food safety rules and standards.
“Actively Engaged” in Farming Rules
Also at the Wednesday hearing, Congressman David Young (R-IA) pressed Secretary Vilsack on the topic of farm subsidy reform, and USDA’s authority to define “actively engaged in farming” to close the loophole of payment eligibility. USDA is expected to publish a rule shortly to clarify who can receive farm program payment. Rep. Young stressed the need for USDA to take full advantage of it’s authority to clarify this rule in order to end wasteful and inequitable subsidy pay-outs. Secretary Vilsack noted the importance of closing the loopholes and predicted that USDA would publish the rule in the very near term.
At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on Tuesday, February 24, Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) reiterated to Secretary Vilsack that there is nothing in the 2014 Farm Bill preventing the Secretary and the Obama Administration from fulfilling candidate Obama’s pledge to reform the Farm Service Agency’s payment eligibility rules. The Senator stressed the existing, longstanding authority USDA has to effectively implement the actively engaged in farming law. The Secretary indicated nevertheless that he felt constrained by the 2014 Farm Bill language to do very much. We remain hopeful the Administration will adopt a less defeatist attitude before issuing a proposed rule later this month or next.
At the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) expressed his support for crop insurance, including support for the expansion of crop insurance to crops that have not had coverage available in the past. The new Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) policy, included in the 2014 Farm Bill, is one of several crop insurance improvement supported by NSAC that are helping to level the playing field and expand the ability of mid-sized, diversified, and organic producers to access the Federal Crop Insurance Program. Secretary Vilsack announced, as part of his written testimony, that he expects the WFRP to be expanded to every state in 2016. It is currently unavailable in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
Several senators at the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, including Sen. Stabenow (D-MI), raised concerns about cuts to conservation programs included in the President’s FY2016 budget.
The President’s budget would cut $859 million from the 2014 Farm Bill’s Conservation Title, including 3 million acres from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). This represents a five-year cut in farm bill mandatory spending of $486 million. The budget request also includes a $373 million cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for FY 2016.
Sen. Stabenow noted, “The cut, particularly for the Conservation Stewardship Program, really affects our conservation funding baseline going forward and will make it more difficult to do the things we want to do as we write another farm bill.” She referenced a letter delivered to the House and Senate Budget Committee last month, in which 35 organizations called on Congress to oppose the proposed cuts to these critical programs. “We strongly oppose these proposed cuts and urge you to reject them,” the letter states. “The President’s proposal is shortsighted and would severely limit the capacity of farmers, ranchers, and foresters to conserve water, maintain their soil, and produce abundant food and fiber.”
Outreach and Assistance to Minority, Beginning, and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers
On Friday, February 27, Representative Sanford Bishop (D-GA) asked Jason Weller, Chief of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) whether the agency had plans to expand support for socially disadvantaged and limited resource farmers and rancher. Chief Weller noted that five percent of the funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program is set aside for these producers. In addition to the conservation set-asides, USDA administers the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program (also known as the “Section 2501 Program”), which provides grants to organizations that work with minority and veteran farmers and assist them in owning and operating farms and participating in USDA programs. For FY 2016, NSAC is strongly advocating for Congress to provide $10 million in discretionary funding for the 2501 Program, which falls within the jurisdiction of the House and Senate Subcommittees on Agriculture Appropriations.