Last week, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified at a lengthy – even by Congressional standards -six-hour hearing held by the House Agriculture Committee. The hearing comes at a particularly unique moment. The USDA, at the direction of Congress, has spent the last several years implementing and administering a wide array of programs and resources designed to support farmers, ranchers, and food system stakeholders throughout the pandemic, and to ultimately build a more resilient, sustainable food and farm system. At the same time, the new 118th Congress is currently gearing up to reauthorize the Farm Bill this year. Situated at this pivotal juncture in early 2023, last week’s hearing is a window into the work done over the last several years, and a barometer of the Farm Bill reauthorization to come.
The hearing began with Committee Chair GT Thompson (R-PA-15) stating how critical it is to pass a good Farm Bill this year. Ranking Member David Scott (D-GA-13) shared concerns about the loss of small family farms and ranches and the importance of nutrition, noting that our country’s nutrition programs should better support veterans, the poor, and those in need. In response, Secretary Vilsack discussed his ideas for new market opportunities, especially for small and mid-sized farms, many of which he shared with NSAC members during NSAC’s 2023 Winter Meeting earlier this year. He stated that the majority of farm income is being made by the largest producers, demonstrating a need for new markets –like local and regional food systems, value-added products, and renewable energy – to help stave off increased consolidation in the American food system, support local and rural economies, and promote nutrition security.
Through nearly six hours of questioning, House Agriculture Committee members asked Secretary Vilsack about a number of USDA programs and operations.
Addressing Conservation Program Backlogs
Six House Agriculture Committee members asked the Secretary questions about the administration of conservation programs, addressing backlogs in contracts and application evaluations for programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). For example, Representative Spanberger (D-VA-7) asked how the House Agriculture Committee should view conservation in the Farm Bill this year, while Representative Costa (D-CA-21) asked how backlogs in conservation program administration would be addressed. Further, Representative Slotkin (D-MI-7) asked how the Committee should be viewing legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and how it affects conservation support. The Secretary responded to these questions by noting that funds allocated from the IRA will help to address backlogs within conservation programs and that he looks forward to reducing the backlogs within the next several years. In addition, the Secretary emphasized that continued funding will be essential to getting critical technical assistance to farmers so that they can successfully participate in conservation programs. Rep. De La Cruz(R-TX-15) echoed concerns about backlogs as well, prompting her to personally invite Sec. Vilsack to visit farmers in her district struggling to access EQIP funding for fencing on their operations.
Improving Access to the Farm Safety Net for Small-Scale and Diversified Farmers
Another topic that came up multiple times throughout the hearing was the importance of crop insurance and the farmer safety net. In his opening remarks, Ranking Member David Scott of Georgia expressed his concerns about creating a stronger safety net, especially for small farmers, many of whom are struggling. Both Representatives Brown (D-OH-11) and Rouzer (R-NC-7) asked about what kinds of new programs or investments were needed to improve crop insurance access. The Secretary shared that a variety of risk management tools that employ flexibility to assist all kinds of farms of different sizes growing different crops and raising varieties of livestock could adequately tap into the benefits of crop insurance. In response to Representative Salinas (D-OR-6), and her concerns about specialty crop producers getting support in the wake of natural disasters like wildfires, Secretary Vilsack shared that IRA funds were being used to establish firesheds and other forest management resources to help farmers in disaster prone areas.
Representative Glusenkamp-Perez (D-WA-3) shared Rep. Salinas’ concerns, stating that specialty crop farmers had trouble accessing crop insurance. Representatives Molinaro (R-NY-19) and Chavez-DeRemer (OR-R-5) had similar concerns, sharing that the needs of specialty crop farmers and traditional crop insurance do not align. Sec. Vilsack responded that specialty crop farmers can look for support from the ERP in Phase 2. Finally, Representative Sorensen (D-IL-17) made an important connection between climate change and crop insurance, stating that crop insurance needs to consider climate risks for farmers in developing policies.
Advancing Racial Equity Across USDA Programs
Equity in USDA programs was also of concern to certain members of the Committee. Representative Alma Adams (D-NC-12) asked the Secretary about discrimination payments going out to farmers. The Secretary shared that USDA’s initiatives to get payments out was going well; they hired a national advisor to guide the process and the agency intends for all payments to be out by the end of the year. Rep. Adams also highlighted the importance of funding for 1890 Land Grant Universities, and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to ensure that education and resources for historically underserved communities are sufficiently funded and supported. Representative Brown asked the Secretary about inequities in the distribution of USDA program funding. The Secretary shared that the Agency is collaborating with partners around the country to get information out to underserved communities about USDA programs and funding opportunities. To further assist farmers, Secretary Vilsack mentioned that microloans and new FSA loan opportunities like the Increasing Land, Capital, and Market Access program are expanding options for farmers.
Investing in Resilient Local and Regional Food Systems
Local and rural food systems resilience was of great importance to many Members on the Committee and to Secretary Vilsack. In response to a question from Ranking Member Scott, Secretary Vilsack stated that USDA currently has about 230 grants that have been awarded to fund small meat processors, supporting about 3,000 small packing businesses. Representative Caraveo (D-CO-31) shared a personal story about a dairy in her district that benefited from the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, but told the Secretary that shorter application forms and simplifying the application process are critical to expanding access to the program. The Secretary said that he will work with USDA on furthering those efforts to ensure these programs can support producers in accessing new markets.
Promoting Fair and Competitive Livestock Markets
On the topic of support for smaller farmers, issues with consolidation and foreign agriculture interests seemed to be particularly worrisome to Committee members, especially for the potential impact on the American farm economy. Representative Spanberger emphasized the need to address livestock concentration. Secretary Vilsack agreed, noting USDA’s current efforts to expand and clarify rules governing the implementation of the Packers and Stockyards Act. Representative Casar (D-TX-35) asked whether the Secretary saw any benefit to simply assessing concentration in the United States food system, to which the Secretary immediately agreed, adding that he hoped to see the agency work with the Department of Justice to better address anti-competitive mergers in the food system.
Ensuring Healthy Food Access
No Farm Bill discussion would be complete however without a comprehensive conversation about nutrition, which is addressed in Title IV of the Farm Bill. Many Committee Members, including Rep. McGovern (D-MA-2) and Rep. Carbajal (D-CA-24) shared that cuts to SNAP would be difficult for Americans who depend on SNAP dollars and that the program in fact needed to be expanded. Others shared more specific policies, such as Rep. Adams (D-NC-12), who stated that the SNAP program needed both expansion and modernization to address today’s needs, which the Secretary agreed with. On the whole, the hearing was important for addressing major areas of policy where the Farm Bill can make needed investments for farmers. Whether by increasing enrollment in voluntary conservation programs, making the safety network for small-scale and diversified farmers, expanding nutrition program access, or increasing funding for USDA technical assistance, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack underscored how important continued funding and creativity is in developing and improving USDA programs to best address the needs of today’s farmers.
As the 2023 Farm Bill reauthorization moves forward, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and its 130+ members will continue to advocate for a Farm Bill that advances racial equity across the food system, builds a climate-resilient future, invests in healthy communities, and levels the playing field for small- and mid-sized farms. Read NSAC’s Platform for the 2023 Farm Bill to learn more about the policies we are advocating for in the 2023 Farm Bill to build a more equitable resilient food system.