December 17, 2013
On Tuesday, December 17, NSAC delivered a letter to members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, urging them to support sustainable agriculture priorities in the final fiscal year 2014 appropriations legislation.
The Committees are currently working to finalize legislation that would fund the government for the rest of FY 2014. Both Committees passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills earlier this year. Rather than negotiating and passing a yearlong agriculture appropriations bill at that time, Congress extended FY 2013 funding levels through a short-term continuing resolution that expires on January 15.
Pointing to the FY 2014 budget deal recently passed by the House and soon to be passed by the Senate, the letter notes, “The FY 2014 budget deal partially replaces sequestration cuts for two years, providing for additional discretionary funding in FY 2014 and 2015. Some of that money should be directed to the Agriculture Appropriations sub-allocation to help build upon successful investments and reverse the trend of repeatedly shortchanging important programs due to an unreasonable low 302a allocations and sequestration.”
It is our hope that appropriators will use some of those savings to bump up funding for several critical programs that help farmers, ranchers, and rural communities thrive. We outline those priorities below.
Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Grants
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is the only USDA competitive grant research program with a consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research at its core. Despite SARE’s popularity, technological breakthroughs, and demonstrated administrative efficiency over the past 25 years, its funding rests at less than a third of its authorized amount. As a result, only 1 out of 10 meritorious proposals is funded. At the very least, SARE should be funded at the Senate funding level of $22.7 million for FY 2014. In order to meet future challenges, which require increased production and profitability in a sustainable manner, farmers need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible and relevant to their farming systems. SARE is uniquely able to meet that need.
We are very pleased that neither the House nor Senate agriculture appropriations bills limit mandatory funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program, Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, Chesapeake Bay Watershed Initiative, and Farmland Protection Program. However, both bills make Changes in Mandatory Program Spending (CHIMPS) to other mandatory conservation programs. In particular, we strongly oppose the limitation that the House bill places on the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The House bill limits the FY 2014 WRP enrollment to 71,104 acres, a cut of over 193,000 acres. This limitation would have an enormous impact on USDA’s ability to conserve wetlands.
We are also concerned about funding for USDA’s Conservation Operations account. Congress uses this account to fund conservation technical assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Even at the Senate funding level of $818 million, the Conservation Operations account would be at $10 million below its FY 2012 funding level. USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to farmers and ranchers depends heavily on on-the-ground conservation technical assistance. We must not hamstring our investment in conservation by under-funding technical assistance.
Rural Economic Development and Farm Loan Programs
Several programs help farmers and rural businesses gain access to important capital, enterprise financing, and technical assistance. Chief among them are the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program, Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program (RMAP), and Direct Operating Loan program. We are pleased that funding for the VAPG program is increased slightly to $15 million in both the House and Senate bills; however, this is a very small step forward, considering that the program has been cut by more than 32 percent since 2010. We will continue to fight for renewed funding for VAPG in the farm bill and in future appropriations bills.
In our letter, we urge appropriators to adopt the Senate funding levels for both RMAP and Direct Operating Loans. The House bill provides no money for RMAP, while the Senate bill provides $1.4 million. For Direct Operating Loans, the House bill provides $1.13 billion while the Senate bill provides $1.22 billion. These programs help new farmers and rural businesses in the beginning so that they can expand their operations and drive economic growth in rural areas.
Contract Fairness for Livestock and Poultry Farmers
Finally, we urge appropriators to exclude a harmful legislative rider—known as the GIPSA rider—that overrides the Farm Bill and denies poultry and livestock farmers protection under the Packers and Stockyards Act. A provision included in the House bill would severely limit USDA’s ability to implement the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act contract fairness rule that it began to implement in 2010. This is an affront to justice and fairness for farmers and is an unfortunate example of legislating on an appropriations bill on behalf of a very few powerful corporations. The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 is the nation’s primary statute providing basic protections for livestock and poultry growers against fraudulent, deceptive, and retaliatory trade practices by meatpackers and poultry companies. The statute’s importance is even more relevant now than in 1921, because the extent of such practices has expanded significantly. NSAC vehemently opposes the limitation to full implementation of the GIPSA contract fairness rule.
Timeline Moving Forward
The Senate is expected to vote on and pass the House-passed budget agreement this week. Once the budget deal becomes law, the next step will be for the Appropriations Committees to allocate the new total discretionary funding levels between the various functions of government and attempt to put together an “omnibus” appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 for Congress to vote on before January 15. How much will go to the agriculture bill—and within the agriculture bill, how the vastly different funding programmatic levels between the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills from earlier this year are reconciled—will be a project taking up a good chunk of time over the next several weeks. We expect to see Congress vote on a final FY 2014 appropriations package between January 7 and 14. We hope at that point to be able to report significant progress on the sustainable agriculture priorities outlined above.