This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee and Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee marked up their agriculture spending bill for fiscal year 2014. This bill allocates $20.93 billion in funding for agriculture, rural development, nutrition and food safety programs for the next fiscal year, which begins on October 1. This funding allocation is $420 million higher than this year’s enacted levels and in stark contrast to the House’s ag bill which is $1.43 billion less than the Senate version. How this large discrepancy in funding levels between the two chambers will be resolved in conference remains to be seen, and greatly complicates the goal of passing an agriculture appropriations bill for 2014.
The Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies passed the 2014 agriculture appropriations bill by voice vote on Tuesday June 18, with no amendments offered during markup, and only a handful of subcommittee members present.
The full Senate Committee on Appropriations then approved this bill on Thursday June 20, with the support of a majority of its members by a vote of 23 to 6. No amendments were offered during full committee markup, unlike the House which used this opportunity to attach several bad policy riders and deeper cuts to nutrition programs (see our previous blog post for more details on the House’s agriculture appropriations bill).
The FY14 agriculture appropriations bill now heads to the full Senate, but no date has been set for floor action. The House Appropriations Committee passed its version of the ag bill last week, and the full House is expected to take up the bill sometime next week.
On par with the House bill, the Senate bill does not make any cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) – an important working lands conservation program that has frequently been targeted during the annual appropriations process. While we are very pleased that both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees leave funding for CSP intact, several other mandatory conservation programs are cut from their FY14 authorized levels, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program and the Agricultural Management Assistance Program.
The Senate bill also provides $818 million for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to provide technical assistance to producers to implement conservation practices on their farms, which is a bump up from FY13 levels, but still lower than historical levels and the amount needed for USDA to be able to fully deliver conservation programs.
Rural Development and Farm Loans
The bill restores discretionary funding for most rural development programs to FY 2012 levels, before automatic cuts triggered by the sequester took effect in FY 2013. We are pleased that the committee increases funding for the Value-Added Producer Grants to $15 million, which is also the same level reported in the House bill. The Senate bill also provides a substantial increase to the local foods set aside within the Business and Industry guaranteed loans program, for a total amount of $47.9 million for FY14.
The Senate bill provides $1.4 million in funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, compared to zero funding in the House. This program has received no money in any of the past three appropriations bills, and is one of the “stranded programs” as a result of Congress’s inability to pass a farm bill. We are hopeful that funding will be made available through the FY14 appropriations process to get this program back up and running.
The committee rejected the President’s proposal to consolidate several rural development grant and loan programs, and provides level funding for both Rural Cooperative Development Grants ($8.8 million) and Rural Business Enterprise Grants ($24.3 million).
The bill also provides a significant increase in funding for direct farm loans made through USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), including $575 million for ownership loans and $1.22 billion for 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. If enacted, this funding would allow FSA to begin to address the substantial backlog of approved but unfunded loan applications, and increase access to credit for farmers.
Research, Education, and Extension
On the research front, the Senate bill ramps up funding for most intramural and extramural research programs. The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program – the cornerstone program that has been funding research on sustainable agriculture systems over the past twenty-five years – receives $22.7 million, or a $5 million increase over current funding levels. The bill reported out of the Senate accepts the Presidents’ proposal to consolidate three functions of the SARE program (research, extension, and professional development) into one line item, but makes clear in report language that all three components should continued to be funded in the future as they have been in previous years. If enacted, this is an issue that NSAC will be monitoring closely and working with USDA to ensure each program function is funded.
Both the Organic Transitions research program and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (also known as “ATTRA”) receive funding on par with 2012 levels, or $4 and $2.25 million respectively. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – USDA’s largest competitive grants research program – receives $316 million, which represents a 15 percent increase in funding over FY13 levels.
There is also a significant increase in funding for organic data collection – the Senate bill makes $2.25 million available to fund a follow on survey to the Census of Agriculture specifically on organic agriculture. However, the bill does not explicitly provide funding for other organic data initiatives including marketing and economic reports that are relevant to organic producers, though we assume continued funding is explicit. Together, this is an increase over historic levels, and given the uncertainty of funding that has been proposed in the Farm Bill and the anticipated data needs related to the ongoing agriculture census, this funding is absolutely critical in ensuring the success of the organic sector.
Unlike the House bill and last year’s continuing resolution, the agriculture appropriations bill that was reported out of committee this week is free from any legislative riders, such as the amendment which was accepted in the House bill that would further limit USDA’s ability to administer a contract fairness rule to protect livestock farmers who contract with large meatpacking companies. We are pleased that Chairwoman Mikulski (D-MD) and Agriculture Subcommittee Chairman Mark Pryor (D-AR) were true to their word about wanting to produce a clean bill, and NSAC will work towards preserving this on the Senate floor and into conference or a continuing resolution.
Important Report Language
In addition to decent funding levels for many of the priority programs NSAC works on, we are pleased with the report language that is included in the Senate agriculture bill requiring USDA to complete a report detailing its timetable for implementing organic price elections for all organic crops, which are crucial for insuring organics crop at their actual retail value.
We are also pleased to see language that stresses the importance of research funding on conventional breeding that leads to the development of publicly available plant varieties, and will continue to work with the Administration to address these concerns.
For a more detailed breakdown of the funding levels provided in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s 2014 agriculture bill, you can download NSAC’s updated appropriations chart. (Note: these numbers are based on preliminary analysis of the bill and may be revised once the bill is released).
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