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House Ag Appropriation Hearings kick off with questions for Vilsack

February 25, 2010

Yesterday’s hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture kicked off the annual ag appropriations cycle with a round of questions for Secretary Vilsack on the USDA’s budget proposals for 2011.  Members covered a wide swath of issues, and specifically addressed a number of programs of interest to NSAC members, including the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), climate change, food safety, farm to school, and the recently announced Healthy Food Financing and Rural Innovation Initiatives.

Notably missing from the mix were questions on the Administration’s proposed major cuts to mandatory conservation programs.  Despite urging from NSAC and a number of other farm, conservation and environmental groups to reject cuts to mandatory farm conservation programs, no subcommittee member raised the issue with Secretary Vilsack throughout the three-plus hours of questioning.

But on the other side of the budget spectrum, the ballooning Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) prompted Ranking Member Jack Kingston (GA) to dub it the USDA’s “cash for clunkers” equivalent and admonish that the agency could “do better.”  BCAP was written in the 2008 Farm Bill at an estimated $70 million, but is projected to cost $479 million dollars in FY 2011.

Both Kingston and Representative Tom Latham (IA) also criticized the proposed $50 million within the Agriculture and Food Research Institute (AFRI) on climate change research to develop mitigation and adaptation strategies.  Secretary Vilsack responded in defense of the investment, stating that the research was “consistent with the USDA’s responsibilities” and essential in order for the US to continue to be the “most productive and adaptive” agricultural power in the world.  Kingston later questioned the impact that EPA regulations on greenhouse gases (GHGs) might have on farmers.  The Secretary cautioned that the impact was difficult to assess in the absence of a specific proposal, but that preliminary studies show that GHG regulation could represent an economic opportunity for commodity growers.

Following on her press statement on the release of the budget earlier this month, Chairwoman Rosa De Lauro (CT) questioned the Secretary about the lack of increased funding for the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in light of growing concerns by consumers and policy makers about food safety.  De Lauro drilled the Secretary on details about terminating School Lunch Program suppliers who violate safety standards, and about the agency’s role in beefing up oversight of the current Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) management system, which she described as “too much industry self-policing.”

Multiple committee members chimed in on the issue of Child Nutrition spending.  Notably, Representative Sam Farr (CA) reminded the committee of his pending Children’s Fruits and Vegetable Act which includes $10 million in competitive grants and technical assistance for farm-to-school programs.  Representative De Lauro asked for a breakdown of spending within the Administration’s proposed $1 billion per year increase for improvements to Child Nutrition Programs.  The Secretary did not outline details, and in particular did not offer additional information on how Farm to School might be funded within Child Nutrition reauthorization, though he did reiterate the USDA’s commitment to the strategy and mentioned the potential for using Rural Development funds to address supply chain development for Farm to School programs in rural areas.

Rural development was another reoccurring theme with questions ranging from broadband spending to housing to electric loans.  In response to each question about specific programs, Secretary Vilsack brought the conversation back to the concept of regional change made tangible in the USDA’s proposed Regional Innovation Initiative.  In response to concerns about the program eating away at existing competitive grant programs (the initiative would establish modest funding set-asides from twenty different programs across the USDA but does not propose additional new funding), the Secretary reiterated the need for a new approach to rural development that leveraged resources from across communities and encouraged strategic planning to create better places to live rather than focusing on individual business development.  With all respect to the work that’s been done, said the Secretary, “rural development is not working.”  Based on 25 years of experience working on these issues, the Secretary views the new initiative as an exciting and innovative alternative make real improvements in the lives of rural Americans.

Click here to view the full webcast.  Or click here to download a pdf of Secretary Vilsack’s testimony.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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