Nearly three months after the end of the fiscal year, the House has released a draft of the final appropriations package for Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, which if passed will fund everything from research and rural development to food safety and farm credit programs.
The bill—known as an “omnibus”—is actually a package of 12 individual spending bills, include funding for the Departments of Defense, Transportation, Education, Interior, and Agriculture, among others.
For the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the bill provides $21.75 billion in discretionary funding, $925 million more than last year’s enacted level and $34 million less than the USDA request. Congress was able to increase the overall funding level significantly because of the higher spending caps included in last fall’s budget deal.
Both the House and the Senate are expected to pass the legislation before the end of the week or weekend. In the meantime, the current funding extension—known as a “continuing resolution,” or CR—expires at midnight on Wednesday. Congress is expected to pass another very short-term CR today to keep the government running until it passes the final funding package on Thursday or Friday.
This post breaks down the omnibus as it pertains to key sustainable farm and food priorities. You can download our updated annual appropriations chart here. You can also jump down to a particular issue area of interest:
- Research, Education, Extension and Food Safety
- Rural Development and Farm Loans
- Conservation and Energy
- Legislative Riders
- Child Nutrition Reauthorization
We are thrilled to report that the omnibus meets the President’s FY 2016 request for $5 million for the Food Safety Outreach Program, also known as the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach and Technical Assistance (FSOP) program. Going into final negotiations, the House funding bill included $5 million for the program; however, the Senate bill only included $2.5 million. FSOP was a top appropriations priority for NSAC in FY 2016.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is in the process of proposing new, expansive and expensive food safety regulations for farmers and food processors under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the 100 percent increase over last year’s level of $2.5 million will help ensure that producers, wholesalers, and processors are prepared to comply with the new rule.
The increase in funding is accompanied by Senate report language directing the Secretary of Agriculture to “ensure that nonprofit organizations, or organizations representing owners and operators of small and mid-sized farms, small food processors, or small fruit and vegetable wholesalers can compete for funding or subcontracts for on-the-ground food safety training projects that directly reach the targeted, intended beneficiaries.”
Alongside the funding increase for FSOP, sustainable agriculture research scored its biggest victory since FY 2014 with a nearly 9 percent increase in funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, USDA’s only competitive grant research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research. The omnibus funds SARE at $24.7 million, the highest level in the program’s nearly 30-year history.
In recent years, USDA has only been able to fund 6 percent of meritorious pre-proposals for SARE research and education grants. Inadequate funding for SARE has stymied investment in critical, farmer-driven research that is urgently needed to support the next generation of researchers and farmers. We applaud appropriators, and particularly Ranking Members Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), for dogged pursuit of increased funding for sustainable agriculture research.
We are pleased to report that the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (also known as “ATTRA”) receives level funding of $2.5 million in the final omnibus. Heading into negotiations, both the House bill and Senate bill included this funding level, despite a request of $2.1 million from the Administration—which would have been an 18 percent cut from the FY 2015 level. We commend Congress for recognizing the vital importance of ATTRA, which serves millions of producers and conservation professionals each year, and we hope the Administration will back off its push to cut the program in its next and final budget request to Congress.
The omnibus increases funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—USDA’s largest competitive grants research program—from $325 million to $350 million, which is substantially less than the President’s request of $450 million. The still sizable $25 million increase provides the means to allow USDA to fund more public plant breeding and cultivar development research, more agro-ecological systems research, and more mid-size farm profitability and regional food economy research, but we will need to continue to push for those high priority research needs within the broad, discretionary program that can fund just about anything.
The bill maintains level funding of $4 million for the Organic Transitions research program.
The omnibus renews last year’s historic increase to direct farm loans made through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), including program levels of $1.5 billion for farm ownership loans and $1.252 billion for farm operating loans in FY 2016.
For FY 2015, this was an increase of more than 260 percent for direct farm ownership loans and five percent for direct operating loans.
Year after year, FSA has had to turn farmers away—many of them aspiring or beginning farmers—for lack of sufficient funding to meet the high demand for farm loans. Last year’s significant increase in funding has helped USDA meet that demand.
However, even at last year’s funding levels, USDA will likely face a FY 2016 shortfall of roughly $400 million and $500 million for direct and guaranteed operating loans, respectively, given low commodity prices and worried commercial lenders, leaving many beginning farmers and others who cannot be fully serviced by commercial credit without the loans they need to stay in business.
On the Rural Development front, we are pleased that the omnibus rejects the President’s proposed cut to the popular and highly competitive Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program, which helps farmers launch new value-added enterprises. The bill maintains level funding of $10.75 million. Though rejecting the cut proposed by the President for FY 2016, the final funding level is far below the $15 million provided in 2014. Fortunately, though, the bill does not cut the mandatory funding provided for VAPG by the 2014 Farm Bill. We will continue to urge Congress to restore discretionary VAPG funding to $15 million in the next appropriations cycle.
Unfortunately, the final bill provides no discretionary funding for the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program (RMAP) despite an increased request from the President for FY 2016. The 2014 Farm Bill does provide $3 million in mandatory farm bill spending for RMAP in FY 2016, but that is an insufficient amount to maintain the program at current levels moving forward.
As in previous years, appropriators provide no funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts program. The BFRIDA program is designed to help beginning farmers and ranchers finance their new and growing agricultural businesses through business and financial education and matched savings accounts. The President requested $2.5 million for BFRIDA grants in FY 2016.
We are thrilled to report that the omnibus refrains from cutting the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and instead allows it to proceed at the level dictated by the 2014 Farm Bill. The House agriculture appropriations bill, had it been enacted into law, would have cut the FY 2016 enrollment by nearly 23 percent, from 10 million acres to 7.74 million acres.
This is a major victory for NSAC, and for Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), the leaders of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. Heading into negotiations, the Senate bill included no cut to CSP; we credit Senators Merkley and Moran, as well as several strong bipartisan supporters in the House, for holding strong against the cut included in the House bill.
Unfortunately, as in previous years, the omnibus cuts the popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), this time by $321 million, or 19 percent. This will have a direct impact on producers seeking financial and technical assistance to conserve water, soil, and other natural resources on their farms. After last year’s cut of $253 million, for example, only 23 percent of eligible applicants were able to get into the program.
The $321 million cut to EQIP also means a $22.5 million cut to the popular Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) because RCPP draws its funding from CSP and EQIP, among other programs.
We are pleased to report that the omnibus refrains from cutting farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loans to producers and businesses for energy conservation and renewable energy generation. In addition to protecting mandatory funding, the bill provides an additional appropriation for REAP loan guarantees.
While the omnibus protects farm bill funding for REAP, it cuts farm bill funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) by 88 percent, from $25 million to only $3 million.
Recognizing the critical role that technical assistance plays in helping farmers, ranchers, and foresters plan and implement conservation activities, the omnibus increases USDA’s Conservation Operations budget from $846.4 million to $850.9 million. Conservation Operations is the primary means by which USDA offers conservation technical assistance (CTA) to farmers, ranchers, and foresters. USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to producers depends heavily on on-the-ground CTA, which makes up the bulk of the Conservation Operations account.
Heading into final negotiations, House and Senate leaders were negotiating a long list of policy riders, including provisions ranging from blocking the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing environmental regulations to lifting a ban on oil exports and limiting FDA’s ability to regulate e-cigarettes.
We are pleased to report that the final bill does not include what is known as the “GIPSA rider,” which for the last four years has denied poultry and livestock farmers basic protections under the Packers and Stockyards Act.
In previous years, the GIPSA rider prevented USDA from advancing a fair competition and contract reform rule to protect livestock and poultry growers against fraudulent, deceptive, and retaliatory practices by meatpackers and poultry integrators. The absence of the rider means USDA can now do its job to implement and enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act.
In a particularly egregious example of legislating in an appropriations bill, the omnibus reopens the farm bill to end farm program payment limitations for cotton by bringing back marketing loan commodity certificates, a feature of farm programs that ended in 2009.
The provision would direct USDA to apply farm law as it existed in 2008, when marketing loan gains were not subject to payment limits, rather than applying the law as it exists post-2014 Farm Bill, which makes all forms of payments and gains subject to the payment limit. Hence, mega farms will now be able to collect unlimited subsidies through this mechanism.
This rider is a blatant end-run around the policy set by the 2014 Farm Bill, and a shameful perversion of the annual appropriations process.
We are pleased that the final bill does not include a House rider that would have delayed the implementation of wetland and soil conservation requirements for an additional year under certain circumstances.
The House provision to re-open the farm bill to limit conservation requirements was nothing but a backdoor attempt to undo farm bill reform via delaying tactics, and very much deserved to be deleted.
Waters of the United States Rule
Despite a major effort by real estate development interests, the oil and gas industry, and many farm groups to have Congress block EPA’s clean water rule – generally referred to as the Waters of the US or WOTUS rule – the final bill does not include such a provision. Despite what several leading farm groups say, this is a victory for farmers who gain a large measure of clarity about what waterways and wetlands fall under the scope of the Clean Water Act. The rule is still be adjudicated in the courts, but, absent the rider, if the courts eventually decide for EPA the matter will be settled. As with many other environmental riders proposed in either the House or Senate bills, they ultimately fell by the wayside in return for the apparently bigger political goody being included in the final bill – lifting the ban on U.S. oil exports.
Dietary Guidelines and School Meals
The final bill repeats two riders from last year’s appropriations bill, extending existing provisions that delay a much-needed reduction in sodium levels for school meals and allow state-by-state waivers from USDA’s new whole grain requirements for school meals. But all other proposals to weaken nutrition standards fell by the wayside. The final bill also tells USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services to not include sustainability factors in the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines, due out later this week or next. Since the Administration has already indicated that they are excising the sustainability issues raised by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the rider is essentially irrelevant at this point.
The omnibus does not contain any language to preempt state-level efforts to require GMO labeling. In further good news, it does delay the approval of genetically engineered salmon until the FDA provides guidelines for labeling the fish as genetically engineered. Congress is expected to return to the issue of GMO labeling next year.
In recent days, there was some indication that Congress might include a reauthorization of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (also know as the Child Nutrition Act) in the omnibus. This did not pan out.
As we reported last fall, Congress allowed the Child Nutrition Act to expire at the end of September. We are strongly encouraging the Senate Agriculture Committee and House Committee on Education and the Workforce to take up the bill early next year.
It is imperative that Congress reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act as soon as possible, and that the reauthorization include increased support for farm to school programming across the country, as proposed by Senators Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Marcia Fudge (D-OH), as well as reforms to existing regulatory barriers to procuring healthy food from local farmers.