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Senate Appropriations Bill Underfunds Priority Farm and Food Programs

September 25, 2019


A wide angle shot of the Russell Senate building in Washington DC
Russell Senate building. Photo credit: Larry Lamsa

With only six days left in the current fiscal year (FY), Congress is slowly but surely making progress on a final funding package for FY 2020. Last week, the Senate moved the ball forward by “marking up” and passing their agriculture appropriations bill out of both the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and full Senate Appropriations Committee including $23.1 billion in discretionary funding for many of the major programs and functions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – $135 million below the level of funding in the FY 2019 committee-passed bill.

The Senate moved more slowly than their counterparts in the House, who passed their agriculture appropriations bill at the end of June. The Senate wanted to wait for a new two-year budget deal before drafting their appropriations bills, while the House based their bill on predicted budget figures.

The differences between the two bills are stark, and amount to vastly different spending allocations. The House’s overall spending allocation was $15 billion more than the amount ultimately agreed upon for non-defense discretionary funding in the budget deal.  Once the Senate allocated total non-defense funding to its appropriations subcommittees using the non-defense discretionary funding total provided by the budget deal, the Senate agriculture subcommittee had $895 million less than what the House worked with.

As a consequence of being allocated $895 million less than what the House used for their bill and $135 million below FY 2019, the Senate agriculture spending bill underfunds critical economic development and sustainable agriculture programs in comparison to the House-passed bill which included robust support for sustainable agriculture programs and priorities. Additionally, the Senate bill, unlike the House bill, does nothing to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) destructive proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside of their home in the capital. In fact, the Senate provides $25 million to support USDA’s ill-conceived plans.

Because of the significantly different funding figures used in the House and Senate bill, it is likely that some sustainable agriculture priorities will be on the chopping block relative to the funding levels in the House-passed bill when the FY 2020 appropriations package is finalized.

For a detailed analysis of how programs and policies of note for sustainable agriculture advocates fared in the FY 2020 bill, see below:

For a full accounting of how NSAC’s priorities are faring through the appropriations process for FY 2020 and in previous fiscal years check out our updated appropriations chart.

Conservation and Energy

Conservation Funding – Following the trend of the last two appropriations bills, we applaude the Senate Appropriations Committee for steering clear of dipping into farm bill conservation funding to fund other priorities. NSAC and our partners in the conservation community have fought for years to protect mandatory farm bill conservation program funding from back door cuts (known as “CHIMPS” – Changes in Mandatory Program Spending) where appropriators use mandatory funding as an offset to pay for other annual discretionary program needs.

Thankfully, the two-year budget deal that was hammered out this summer removed the pressure on appropriators to dip into pots of mandatory funding by increasing topline spending allocations. The House bill that was passed earlier this year also protects mandatory conservation program funding, meaning that the House and Senate are in agreement on this point and it will likely prevail in conference negotiations on a final funding bill. As USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) continues to move forward with implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, it is critical that appropriators not siphon off limited conservation program funding, and NSAC applauds Senate Appropriators for their efforts to protect these important programs.

Technical Assistance – Additionally, the Senate bill provides an increase of $15 million for Conservation Operations, raising total funding to $835.23 million for FY 2020. Conservation Operations includes $741.36 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.

Renewable Energy – Alongside conservation programs, federal energy programs also play an important role in the growth and maintenance of sustainable agricultural operations. Thankfully, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s agriculture spending bill also protects mandatory farm bill funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). REAP provides grants and loans to farmers and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and purchase of wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems. The Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill also provides an additional $706,000 in discretionary REAP funding specifically for loans, which is double the amount provided in the House.

Local Food and Rural Development

Value-Added Agriculture – Unfortunately, the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill falls short in terms of support for local food and rural business development. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Senate provides no discretionary funding for the Value Added Producer Grants Program, which represents a 46 percent cut to VAPG grants compared to FY19.

VAPG was created in the early 2000s as an alternative approach to risk management: a competitive grant program to provide farmers and ranchers with direct support for the development of new markets that are less dependent on the volatility of commodity markets. Given the current state of the rural economy and depressed commodity prices, helping producers develop new markets is needed now more than ever.

The proposed slash in funding also comes just over a year after the Economic Research Service (ERS) published a report on how successful VAPG has been when it comes to rural economic development. The ERS report shows that businesses that received VAPGs were less likely to fail than similar businesses that did not receive grant support. According to the report, VAPG recipients were 89 percent less likely to fail two years after the grant and 71 percent less likely to fail four years after the grant, when compared to similar non-recipients. Moreover, on average, VAPG recipients provide more jobs (five to six more employees) for their communities than similar non-recipient businesses.

For context, in the early 2000s (the last time the Senate zeroed out discretionary funding for the program), the program had $40 million per year in mandatory funding for value-added grants and a much narrower focus. The 2018 Farm Bill provides the program with just $17.5 million per year, which pales in comparison to the program’s historical funding even when combined with supplemental appropriations in recent years – which comes out to roughly $26 million per year. No matter how you slice it, the lack of discretionary funding for VAPG in the Senate bill represents a significant cut to the program and comes at a time that farmers can ill afford.

Local Food and Direct Markets – Additionally, the Senate bill provides no additional funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) to make up for the funding cuts in the recent farm bill. The 2018 Farm Bill combines FMLFPP and VAPG under a new umbrella program, the Local Agriculture Market Program. However, in merging these two programs, annual FMLFPP funding was cut by $5.3 million. Recognizing both the urgency and continued interest in developing and expanding domestic markets for American food and farm products, NSAC has been urging Congress to fill in this funding gap.

The lack of discretionary funding for VAPG and FMLFPP in the Senate bill stands in stark contrast to the House, which provides VAPG with $15 million in discretionary funding – the same amount appropriators have been consistently providing the program for at least the last three fiscal year. The House also provides FMLFPP with $5.3 million to make up for the short fall in the program’s annual funding.

Rural Economic Development – In addition to cuts to VAPG and FMLFPP, the Senate bill also provides no discretionary funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP), an innovative grant program that has been supporting small business development in rural communities for over a decade. The House bill includes $6 million for RMAP, which is an increase over current funding of $3 million. RMAP’s programmatic future hinges on appropriated dollars, since the 2018 Farm Bill eliminated all mandatory funding for the program.

Urban Agriculture – The Senate bill also provides no funding to support USDA’s efforts to stand up a new Office of Urban Agriculture, which was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill. The House spending bill includes $5 million for the Office. Without discretionary funding, it is likely that USDA will not be able to move forward with implementing this new provision of the farm bill.

Other Rural Development Programs – While the Senate agriculture funding bill falls short when it comes to supporting the development of local and regional markets and value-added agriculture, there are some bright spots concerning sustainable agriculture and rural economic development. For example, the Senate bill maintains current funding levels for the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program which provides practical, cutting edge information to farmers and extension agents. The bill also provides modest increases in funding for Rural Business Cooperative Grants and Rural Business Development Grants both of which help non-profits, institutions of higher education and others support economic development and entrepreneurship in rural communities. 

Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Training and Outreach – Support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers is another area where the Senate bill falls short. The 2018 Farm Bill created the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program in order to strengthen USDA’s efforts to train and assist beginning, veteran, tribal, and other underserved farmers. FOTO combines two of USDA’s flagship training and technical assistance programs – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (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.

In combining the funding and authorizations for BFRDP and 2501, Congress was able to provide both programs with permanent baseline funding while maintaining each program’s historic integrity. Funding for FOTO is divided equally between 2501 and BFRDP, and funding ramps up over time, starting at $15 million in annual grant funding for each program. This is a cut to BFRDP funding compared to previous years ($20 million mandatory), and fails to restore the cut to 2501 funding from the 2014 Farm Bill.

NSAC has been advocating that appropriators provide an additional $10 million in discretionary funding to restore both programs to their historic funding levels for the FY20 grant cycle. The Senate bill provides $3 million for 2501 grants (which is flat funding relative to FY19) and no funding for BFRDP. In contrast the House provides FOTO with $10 million in discretionary funding split evenly between 2501 and BFRDP.

Research and Food Safety

Sustainable Agriculture Research – Agriculture research is one area in which the Senate bill does at least not take any steps backwards. Across all research and extension activities, the bill provides a modest 2 percent increase in funding relative to FY19. However, we are disappointed that this increase does not include increased funding for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, whose funding is maintained at current levels. To this day, SARE remains the only farmer-driven USDA research program. In comparison, the House includes an $8 million increase in SARE funding, as advocated by NSAC.

Organic Research – The Senate bill also provides flat funding for the Organic Transitions (ORG) research program. The increase in overall agriculture research spending comes in part from providing Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) with a $10 million increase over FY19, as well as increased funding for the Agriculture Research Service (ARS).

Food Safety – The Senate agriculture spending bill also fails to provide increased investments in farmer food safety training and technical assistance. The bill provides $8 million for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), which is level with current funding. In 2010, Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) – the first major overhaul to our nation’s food safety laws since the 1930s. Recognizing the importance of training as a part of a food safety system focused on prevention, Congress also created FSOP to fund farmer and food processor training efforts. 

This law came into full effect in 2018, and for the first time, thousands of farmers will be facing on-farm food safety inspections this year. With approximately 100,000 farmers impacted by FSMA and seeking support in complying with these new regulations, the need for targeted outreach, education, and technical assistance for our nation’s farmers has never been greater.  But, at current funding levels, only a fraction of impacted producers can be reached.

Farm Loans

The Senate appropriations committee’s bill proposes to mostly maintain current funding levels for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans. For Direct Operating Loans, the bill includes a modest increase from $1.53 to $1.55 billion. FSA is considered to be both 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 farm economy should therefore be considered a must-do for Congress.

Further, the 2018 Farm Bill increased maximum loan limits for both direct and guaranteed loans, which will inherently trigger increased demand for loan funding as USDA is now able to make larger loans. 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 FY20.

Farm Stress Assistance

The Senate bill provides $3 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN), representing a $1 million increase in funding from current levels. 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 the many buredens of farming significantly 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, which 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 reauthorizes FRSAN, recognizing the precarious farmers and ranchers find themselves, but provides no direct funding.

ERS and NIFA Relocation

To NSAC and the broader research community’s dismay, the Senate bill gives the green light to USDA to move forward with the poorly executed and destructive effort to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) from the nation’s capital to a still unknown location in the Kansas City Metro area. Despite the resounding opposition from experts across the research and agriculture communities, USDA is plowing ahead with the relocation, and causing havoc in its wake.

While we applaud Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Ranking Member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, for being outspoken in his opposition to the move during Committee consideration of the bill, we are disappointed that the Senate bill nonetheless rubber stamps the Administration’s proposal and puts taxpayers on the hook for $25 million in relocation expenses.

The Senate’s failure to act has placed them on a collision course with the House, which included language in their bill to block the proposed relocation of both agencies. At this point, it is unclear how Congress will be able to resolve this difference as the two chambers move to conference differences in their respective bills. But one thing can be certain: this unnecessary relocation will impact the ability of both agencies to carry out their missions for years to come, as they will be operating at radically decreased staffing levels with huge holes in terms of institutional knowledge.

NSAC remains concerned about the long-term impacts this relocation will have on both the integrity of scientific research at the USDA as well as the ability of NIFA to move millions of dollars in grant funding out the door – primarily to our nation’s land-grant universities, which conduct the majority of publicly funded agriculture research in this country outside of USDA.

The 2018 Farm Bill included significant increases in funding for various grant programs administered by NIFA. These include programs such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentives Program, the Food Safety Outreach Program, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and the Community Food Projects grant program. We remain deeply concerned about the ability of NIFA to administer these programs and provide the necessary oversight and technical assistance to grantees.

Next Steps

The Senate Appropriations Committee has now passed five of the twelve individual appropriations bills that cover annual government funding. Three additional bills have been passed out of their respective subcommittees and are expected to be marked-up and passed by the full committee later this week. Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), has stated that he intends to try and pass some of the appropriations bills that have bipartisan support on the Senate floor (including the agriculture spending bill), while others may be left for conference negotiations with the House.

With just a few legislative days left until the end of the current fiscal year, Congress will most likely delay further appropriations decisions this week and instead move to pass a short term Continuing Resolution (CR), which would keep the government funded while appropriations negotiations continue. The House passed a CR last week that would extend FY 2019 funding through November 21st. The Senate is expected to pass the House-passed CR sometime this week, averting a government shutdown and buying Congress time to finalize the rest of the 12 appropriations bills.

As conference negotiations begin, NSAC will be advocating in support of the House-passed funding levels for sustainable agriculture priorities. However, as noted above, there is a $15 billion difference between the overall level of spending (also known as the 302(a) allocation) the House used to write their appropriations bills and what was provided for in the two-year budget deal. As a result, the higher levels of funding for agriculture programs in the House bill will have to come down in conference and it is certain that funding for at least some of NSAC’s priorities will be on the chopping block.

We will continue to provide analysis and action opportunities on the NSAC blog and via our Action Alerts as the FY 2020 appropriations process continues to move forward.


Categories: Budget and Appropriations, General Interest


2 responses to “Senate Appropriations Bill Underfunds Priority Farm and Food Programs”

  1. kelvin says:

    This a nice article, it helped me on my assignment on agriculture am grateful, superb writeup.

  2. […] Senate Appropriations Bill Underfunds Priority Farm and Food Programs […]

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