NSAC's Blog

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Advances FY 2020 Funding Bill

May 24, 2019

United States Capitol building in Washington, DC. Photo credit: USDA.

The House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee passed its fiscal year (FY) 2020 bill just ahead of Congress’ Memorial Day recess, bringing them one step closer to providing funding for food and agriculture programs for FY 2020. The agriculture appropriations bill includes funding for a wide range of farm and food programs, including conservation initiatives, beginning farmer and rancher training, and agricultural research. It is expected that the full House Appropriations Committee will take up the draft bill when Congress returns from recess, likely the first week of June.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) celebrated the many wins for sustainable agriculture included in the Subcommittee’s bill this week, including bill language that would block the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The House bill also kept funding in tact for vital conservation programs, and met or exceeded NSAC’s funding recommendations for many other important programs.

The passage of the House Subcommittee bill is significant, but it is also just one of a long list of steps that Congress must complete before FY 2020 funding can be finalized.

Appropriations Overview

The agriculture funding bill is the 10th of 12 total bills that House appropriators have passed out of their respective spending subcommittees; several of those bills have also moved through the full Appropriations Committee. Senate appropriators have yet to move forward with setting overall levels for discretionary funding, however, let alone allocations or funding levels for individual bills. We expect that Senate appropriators will begin moving their bills forward next month; however, at this point the fate of an overall deal on lifting budget caps (which is a major part of the holdup over on the Senate side) remains uncertain.

NSAC was very pleased to see that the House Subcommittee once again rejected misguided cuts to food and farm programs proposed by the Administration in their budget recommendations. Although the Subcommittee’s minority members did not ultimately support the draft bill because of a lack of agreement on overall budget caps, there was clear bipartisan support for the process and priorities included in the bill.

Programs and policies of note for sustainable agriculture advocates in the House Subcommittee’s FY 2020 bill include:

Conservation and Energy

Following the trend of the last two appropriations bills (FY 2018 and 2019), the House Subcommittee wisely chose to provide full funding for farm bill conservation programs. NSAC and our partners in the conservation community have fought for years to protect mandatory farm bill conservation program funding from back door cuts, and we are very encouraged to see the House Agriculture Subcommittee respecting the funding decisions made in the 2018 Farm Bill.

In contrast to the President’s budget proposed to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and cut funding the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), the Subcommittee’s bill instead chose to protect conservation programs. No cuts were made in the bill to CSP, ACEP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), or the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). As USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) moves forward with implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, it is critical that appropriators not siphon off limited conservation program funding. NSAC applaud the House Subcommittee for their efforts to protect these important programs.

Additionally, the bill also provides an increase of $10 million for Conservation Operations, raising total funding to $829.6 million for FY 2020. Conservation Operations includes funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which provides farmers with on-the-ground conservation planning and technical support. Through CTA, NRCS field staff work with farmers to develop and implement conservation plans to conserve resources on their farms, to assess conservation practices and systems, and to collect, analyze, and disseminate data on the condition of the nation’s natural resources. The exact funding level for CTA is not yet known, but will be included in the report; NSAC expects CTA funding will be increased above FY 2019 funding levels.

Alongside conservation programs, federal energy programs also play an important role in the growth and maintenance of sustainable agricultural operations. We are therefore pleased that the Subcommittee’s bill also protects mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which was provided in the 2018 Farm Bill. REAP provides grants and loans to farmers and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and purchase of wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems. It also provides support for farmers’ energy audits and renewable energy development. In protecting REAP, the Subcommittee keeps strong USDA’s primary tool for helping farmers and ranchers reduce energy costs by conserving and producing energy on their land. However, given the strong demand from producers and rural small businesses, we are disappointed that the Subcommittee’s bill was not able to provide additional discretionary funding for FY 2020.

Local Food and Rural Development

Positive trends continued to be upheld for local food system and rural development programs in the Subcommittee’s bill as well. For the third year in a row the House Subcommittee rejected severe cuts  to rural development programs proposed in the President’s FY20 Budget Proposal, and also followed NSAC recommendations to provide robust support for new initiatives.

The Subcommittee provides $23.4 million for the new Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP); an umbrella program that partially combines and streamlines the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and Value-Added Producers Grant Program (VAPG). FMLFPP and VAPG are both provided with permanent mandatory funding through LAMP. NSAC was very pleased to see this robust level of funding for LAMP, which includes a restoration of historic funding for FMLFPP.

Although the 2018 Farm Bill provided permanent, mandatory funding for both FLMFPP and VAPG through LAMP, the structuring and level of the funding resulted in a $5.3 million cut  (compared to historic levels) to FMLFPP. Thankfully, the Subcommittee’s bill provided funding to fully restore FMLFPP in FY 2020. Ranking Member Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), a long-time local food champion, had this to say about FMLFPP funding during the markup:

“I was pleased to see investments being made in a handful of new programs recently authorized in the last farm bill. When I met with the Chairman in his office earlier this week, we found common ground, as we often do, on ideas on how to grow the American agriculture family. The bill includes $5.4 million for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, allowing smaller local producers to produce fresh products, gain a source of revenue, and connect with the local community where they reside.”

In addition to providing FMLFPP with $5.4 million, the bill also provides an additional $15 million for VAPG, and an additional $3 million for Agriculture Innovation Centers to provide training and technical assistance in support of value-added agriculture enterprise development. If the Subcommittee’s bill were to become law, the USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service would have $32.5 million for VAPG grants in FY 2020 (combined mandatory farm bill funding and discretionary funding).

The good news doesn’t end there. The Subcommittee’s bill also included a quarter million dollar increase in discretionary funding for the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program. ATTRA provides practical, cutting edge information to farmers, extension agents, and others. The funding increase for ATTRA supports, among other things, the continued and expanded operation of ATTRA’s Armed to Farm program, which helps returning military veterans learn to farm and enter the field of agriculture.

The bill also included for the first time $5 million for the USDA to stand-up the new Office of Urban Agriculture, which was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

NSAC applauds the Subcommittee for investing in beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers by providing $10 million in additional funding for the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program. FOTO, established in the 2018 Farm Bill, combines and protects the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers (aka “Section 2501”).

For over a decade, BFRDP has served as the only USDA program explicitly dedicated to training the next generation of farmers. And for nearly three decades, the Section 2501 Program has worked to level the playing field and arm our nation’s most chronically underserved farmers with the tools they need to thrive and compete in the agricultural economy. The inclusion of $10 million in additional discretionary funding for FOTO meets NSAC’s FY 2020 request and if enacted, would restore both programs to their previous funding levels – when combined with the $30 million in mandatory funding for FY 2020, $20 million for each program.

The Subcommittee’s bill also provides $1 million for a new data initiative on Land Access and Farmland Ownership to ensure that policymakers and the public have access to important trend data on farmland ownership, tenure, transition, barriers to entry, profitability and viability of beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers.

Research and Food Safety

The House Subcommittee’s bill would provide historic increases for sustainable agriculture research and food safety programs. The bill includes $45 million for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is an $8 million (22 percent) increase above the FY 2019 enacted level. This funding level meets NSAC’s request for FY 2020, and would be SARE’s highest funding level since its creation if enacted. SARE is the only USDA competitive grants program with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research, and NSAC thanks the Subcommittee for recognizing the importance of SARE’s work for farmers and farm businesses nationwide. 

The Subcommittee’s bill also meets the recommendations of NSAC and our partners in the organic community in providing $8 million for the Organic Transitions (ORG) research program. This funding level represents a $2 million (33 percent) increase above last year’s enacted level, and would significantly help bridge the gap between organic research funding and the overall research budget. Additionally, the bill provides $445 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI); an increase of $30 million above the FY 2019 enacted level.

When it comes to food safety training, the Subcommittee makes a much-needed investment in the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), providing $10 million in FY 2020 funding. This level of support represents a $2 million increase above the FY 2019 enacted level, and meets NSAC’s request for FY 2020. If included in the final appropriations package, this would be the first time that FSOP reaches its authorized level for discretionary funding. We urge the full House Appropriations Committee to retain this level of support and to provide critical training and support for small and mid-size farms and processors who need to come into compliance with new food safety requirements under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). 

Farm Loans

The Subcommittee’s bill proposes to maintain FY 2019 levels for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans: Guaranteed Operations loans at $1.96 billion, Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans at $2.75 billion, and Direct Farm Ownership Loans at $1.5 billion. For Direct Operating Loans, the bill includes an increase from $1.53 to $1.55 billion.

FSA is the lender of first opportunity and last resort for many American farmers, particularly beginning and socially disadvantaged producers. Maintaining support for these programs during a sluggish should therefore be considered a must-do for Congress.

The 2018 Farm Bill increased maximum loan limits for both direct and guaranteed loans, which will inherently trigger increased demand for loan funding. NSAC appreciates the modest increase for Direct Operating Loans, and urges appropriators to ensure that the increased loan limits and increased demand for support are reflected in the funding levels that they set for FY 2020.

Farm Stress

The House bill provides $5 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN).  Farming is a high-stress occupation, rife with financial risk, volatile markets, unpredictable weather, and heavy workloads. The prolonged downturn in the farm economy has made farming’s burdens significant more difficult to bear, and has taken a clear toll on producers’ mental and emotional well-being.

Farmers have a much higher rate of suicide than any other occupation; this problem is exacerbated by mental health professional shortages in rural areas. The 2008 Farm Bill established FRSAN to provide grants to extension services and nonprofit organizations that offer stress assistance programs to farmers, ranchers and others engaged in agriculture-related occupations. The 2018 Farm Bill reauthorized FRSAN, and authorized appropriations up to $10 million per year. Although we were disappointed that the House bill did not fully fund the program, the provision of a $3 million increase from the program’s pilot levels still represents an important step forward.

Proposed Relocation of ERS and NIFA

NSAC applauds the Subcommittee for meeting or exceeding all our priority appropriations recommendations, and also for including language in their bill to block the proposed relocation and reorganization of ERS and NIFA. USDA’s attempt to move these core research agencies outside of the National Capital Region, and to reorganize ERS out of the Department’s Research Mission Area, have been resoundingly opposed by experts across the research and agriculture communities (including NSAC).

The FY 2019 spending bill also included report language expressing concern and opposition to the move, and we are glad that the House has built on last year’s language. The FY 2020 bill directly prohibits the use of any funds for the relocation and realignment of ERS and NIFA.

At the end of 2018, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced HR 7330, the “Agriculture Research Integrity Act” (ARIA), to block the reorganization and relocation of federal agriculture research agencies. The bill was cosponsored by Reps. Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-GA), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-CT), Marcia L. Fudge (D-OH), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH), James P. McGovern(D-MA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), and Mark Pocan (D-WI). Just this week, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) introduced ARIA in their chamber.

Despite the clear signs of congressional intent and the widespread opposition to the move, USDA appears to be charging forward with the proposed relocation anyway. To date, they have narrowed down the potential sites to three locations, and are expected to make an announcement about a location selection as early as next week.

Next Steps

As of today, Congress has officially left town for recess. They will be returning to D.C. the week of June 4, and we expect that the full House Appropriations Committee will take up the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee’s bill that week. On the Senate side, no schedule has yet been announced, but it’s possible that we could see action on the a Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill by mid-month.

As we’ve previously reported, reaching a bipartisan deal to lift the caps on discretionary spending remains the major challenge to getting FY 2020 bill across the finish line. Earlier this week, it seemed as if Congress and the White House were close to reaching a deal on the new spending levels, but they ultimately weren’t able to get there.

Analysis and action opportunities will continue to be made available on the NSAC blog and via our Action Alerts as the FY 2020 appropriations process continues to move forward.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations

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