March 20, 2015
This week and last, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees continued their examination of the Obama Administration’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2016.
Food & Drug Administration
On Thursday, March 12, Senate appropriators questioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about their increased budget request to support implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). FDA has requested an increase of $109.5 million to support FSMA activities in FY 2016. This includes an $11.5 million request to support training and technical assistance for industry.
When asked how and where FDA would focus outreach on the rules, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg stated that FDA will continue working with larger organizations that represent farmers and food producers, but that they also want to “extend the work of local partners . . . that do the work on the ground.” NSAC is encouraged by this sentiment, and USDA’s similar sentiment regarding farmer food safety training, to ensure that organizations that work directly with farmers and food enterprises have the resources they need to provide outreach and education to the most vulnerable entities.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of this week, the House Subcommittee held hearings the the budget requests for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), Rural Development (RD), and Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services (FFAS), respectively. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Subcommittee heard from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Senate Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-KS) kicked off Tuesday’s Senate hearing with a series of questions on Dietary Guidelines criteria, cuts to conservation technical assistance, and the President’s proposal to reform crop insurance subsidies. Sen. Jeff Merkely (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee, pressed Vilsack on pollinator research, energy efficiency programs, and expanded support for mobile poultry slaughter units.
Sen. John Tester (D-MT) began by voicing concerns over the drastic cuts that the White House is proposing to farm bill conservation funding. The President’s request for FY 2016 includes $859 million in cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Farm bill conservation programs are the primary tool that farmers, ranchers, and foresters across the country use to deal with drought, keep soil on the land, conserve wildlife habitat, and prevent the loss of nitrogen and phosphorous into waterways. NSAC vehemently opposes the President’s proposed cuts to mandatory funding for farm bill conservation programs, and we urge Congress to do the same.
Sen. Tester also asked the Secretary whether he believed the new farm bill was actually supporting small family farmers and helping to reverse the mass exodus from Rural America, or whether it was helping to foster increased consolidation in agriculture across the country. Vilsack cited opportunities in expanding local food production and ecosystem markets, but uncertainty about land tenure and the aging farm population were significant areas of concern.
At Wednesday’s Rural Development hearing, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) asked Lisa Mensah, Under Secretary for Rural Development, to speak about the role of local regional food systems in the rural development mission. Under Secretary Mensah explained that one of the bright spots in the agency’s work is the resurgence in local and regional food systems and value-added production. She noted the connection to both public health and economic development. Lillian Salerno, Administrator of the Rural Business – Cooperative Service (RBCS), elaborated on the role of one particular program – the Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program.
The VAPG program is a competitive grant program administered by RBCS that provides funding to farmers and groups of farmers to create or develop value-added producer-owned businesses. These enterprises help increase farm income and marketing opportunities, create new jobs, contribute to community economic development, and enhance food choices for consumers.
Administrator Solerno described a VAPG project in Maine to increase the production of organic poultry. She explained that the project and others like it create not only jobs, but also excitement about agriculture, which in turn slows rural out-migration. The House Subcommittee is currently deciding how much funding to provide for the VAPG program. NSAC is requesting $15 million in discretionary funding for VAPG, in addition to direct farm bill funding.
Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY), the Chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, spoke to the importance of another rural development program – the Business and Industry (B&I) Loan Guarantee Program, a portion of which is used to guarantee loans to support and establish enterprises that process, distribute, aggregate, store, and market foods produced either in-state or transported less than 400 miles from the origin of the product. “Another disappointment in the President’s budget request is the $162 million reduction to the Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program,” Chairman Rogers said. “This program opens doors for the creation of new jobs through small business expansion and is more important than ever. Rural areas need more, not less of this type of program.” Like the Chairman, we oppose the President’s requested funding cut for the B&I program in FY 2016.
Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services
During Thursday’s Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services hearing, House Subcommittee Ranking Member Sam Farr (D-CA) and Rep. Chellie Pingree expressed strong support for making sure that the new “Whole Farm Revenue Protection” policy, administered by the Risk Management Agency (RMA), works for all types of farmers. Whole Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP) is a crop insurance policy designed to protect revenue on a farmer’s whole farm, not just one crop. Under this new policy, diversified farms that might not have access to crop or revenue insurance for each crop they grow can insure all the crops they grow and livestock they raise with a single revenue insurance policy.
Rep. Pingree expressed concern that the underwriting guidelines for WFRP may not work for direct-to-consumer sales or Community Supported Agriculture operations. Congressman Farr noted that more and more producers are diversifying their operations and – although WFRP is critical for these producers – the documentation requirements for these highly-diversified operations could be quite burdensome. RMA Administrator Brandon Willis acknowledged these concerns and RMA’s commitment to addressing them.
Next Steps for Appropriations
Over the next week, the House and Senate Subcommittees will hold their final hearings examining the President’s FY 2016 budget request. Individual appropriations requests from Members of Congress are due to the House Subcommittee by March 23 and the Senate Subcommittee by March 27. We expect that the Subcommittees will soon thereafter write their FY 2016 agriculture appropriations bills, which will then need to be debated and passed by each Subcommittee before going to the full Appropriations Committees for consideration.