NSAC's Blog

A Breakdown of the Senate’s Annual Food and Farm Spending Bill

May 20, 2016

Photo credit: Senate.gov

Historic Senate Appropriations Meeting Room in the U.S. Capitol. Photo credit: Senate.gov

Each year, Congress debates and makes key decisions about federal funding priorities for all government agencies, programs, and initiatives – including programs and resources that support our nation’s farmers and ranchers.

This week marks an important step in that process (known as appropriations), as the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the coming fiscal year (FY), which begins on October 1. Overall, the bill provides $21.25 billion in discretionary funding, which is $250 million below the FY 2016 enacted level.

The House Appropriations Committee approved their bill several weeks ago, which means the next step in the process will be floor consideration and debate by both chambers, followed by negotiations to settle differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The annual food, agriculture, and rural development spending bill approved by the Senate Committee this week includes some big wins for sustainable agriculture despite a very tough budget environment. Among the highlights in the bill are a funding increase for sustainable agriculture research, full funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and additional funding for outreach to beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

This post provides a break down of the Senate Committee approved bill as it pertains to key sustainable farm and food priorities, as well as highlights from the committee’s debate and deliberation.

You can also download our annual appropriations tracker for a multi-year comparison of funding levels across bills.

Research, Education, Extension, and Food Safety Training

We are pleased that, like the House bill, the Senate bill meets USDA’s request for an increase in discretionary funding for the Agriculture and Food and Research Initiative (AFRI), raising funding from $350 million to $375 million. In addition to the increase in AFRI, we are thrilled that the bill includes $2.3 million in new funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which is the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research. The increase builds on a $2 million increase included last year, and, if included in the final appropriations package, would bring total SARE funding to $27 million in FY 2017 – the highest funding level ever achieved in the program’s nearly thirty year history.

In order to meet future productivity challenges, farmers need cutting-edge research that is easily accessible, regionally appropriate, and farmer-tested; and that’s exactly what SARE does. SARE serves as an important complement to AFRI, identifying innovations and trailblazing new lines of research, which AFRI funds can then further.

We are also pleased the Committee report includes the following language, which directs USDA to place a greater emphasis on public plant breeding research:

Section 7406 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 specifies priority areas within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative [AFRI], including an emphasis on conventional (classical) plant and animal breeding. The Committee strongly concurs with the intent of this section, and continuing its FY2016 guidance, encourages the agency to create a distinct funding stream within the AFRI program for development of publicly available, regionally adapted cultivars that are bred specifically to meet unique regional soil, climate, and cropping system conditions, for the benefit of U.S. producers, seed companies, processors and consumers. The Committee further directs the agency to report its progress in meeting this requirement.

We are disappointed, however, that while the bill provides increased funding for implementation and enforcement of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), it provides no increase for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). The FDA recently finalized new, expansive food safety regulations for farmers and food processors under the FSMA, making this training and education program critical to ensuring that producers, wholesalers, and processors are prepared to comply with the new rules.

Without additional support for training and education for producers and processors, increasing funding for regulatory enforcement will still leave FSMA short of achieving its public health goals. NSAC will continue to advocate for additional resources for farmer-based food safety training as the bill proceeds to the floor and then to House-Senate conference.

Socially Disadvantaged, Beginning, and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers

NSAC applauds the Senate bill’s inclusion of $3 million in discretionary funding for the Outreach and Technical Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program, also know as the “Section 2501” program. The 2501 program provides competitive grants to our nation’s community-based organizations, land grant universities, and cooperative extension, to develop and strengthen innovative outreach and technical assistance programs and other resources targeted at historically underserved producers.

The $3 million was not originally included in the original subcommittee bill, but was added through what is known as a “Manager’s Package” of amendments during Thursday’s consideration of the bill in full committee. We thank Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) for championing the effort.

NSAC continues to support USDA’s request for a total of $10 million in discretionary spending for the 2501 program in FY 2017. Funding at this level would restore total program funding to its historical level, allowing the program to better address the increased demand for outreach and technical assistance by military veteran farmers, and other underserved producers.

The bill also includes $5 million for the Office of the Secretary for veteran outreach, $2.5 million for a new veteran-focused research initiative (FARM Vets), and $2 million for Farm Service Agency initiatives aimed at helping beginning and veteran farmers and ranchers start and manage successful farming operations. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) led the effort to secure the $2 million for FSA initiatives by adding it to the Manager’s Package of amendments.

Rural Development and Farm Loan Programs

Like the House Committee-passed bill, the Senate’s bill increases funding for Direct Farm Operating Loans administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) from $1.25 billion to $1.46 billion. This increase will help FSA to meet the growing demand from beginning farmers and others who typically lack access to commercial capital. While the increase is a good start and matches the USDA’s request, recent data suggests that FSA will be out of 2016 funding for direct operating loans before the end of the current fiscal year. Absent a supplemental appropriation, a backlog will mount, requiring a higher 2017 funding level than initially requested. Without a more substantial increase, the current level of loan refinancing could crowd out new beginning farmer lending. As the legislation continues to be debated, we will urge appropriators to utilize updated data and accurate forecasting when finalizing funding for the program, and to adjust funding levels accordingly.

The bill renews last year’s funding level of $1.5 billion for Direct Farm Ownership Loans, as requested by USDA and supported by NSAC.

We are very pleased to report that, like the House bill, the Senate bill meets NSAC’s requests for the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (also known as “ATTRA”), despite the lack of any funding increases in USDA’s budget request for FY 2017. Both the House and the Senate bills would increase funding for ATTRA from $2.5 million to $2.75 million.

ATTRA serves millions of producers and conservation professionals each year. The new funding will be used, in part, to support ATTRA’s Armed-to-Farm program, which assists returning military veterans who are pursuing careers in farming.

Unfortunately, unlike the House Committee-passed bill, the Senate bill does not increase funding for the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program. Instead, it continues last year’s low funding level of $10.75 million. The House bill, in contrast, would increase VAPG funding from $10.75 million to $15 million.

VAPG is an important program that helps farmers acquire working capital and conduct marketing and feasibility studies to develop and expand farm-and food-related businesses. Visit our earlier post for more information about USDA’s current request for VAPG applications for FY 2016.

The Senate Agriculture Committee bill also provides no discretionary funding for the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program (RMAP), despite a request for an increase from the President for FY 2017. Although the 2014 Farm Bill provides $3 million in mandatory farm bill spending for RMAP in FY 2016, this amount will be insufficient to maintain the program’s current level of service.

As in previous years, the Committee bill provides no funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts (BFRIDA) program. This pilot program is designed to help beginning farmers and ranchers finance their new and growing agricultural businesses through business and financial education and matched savings accounts (modeled after successful IDA programs for housing and education). The President requested $1.5 million for BFRIDA grants in FY 2017, which is the level NSAC has championed as well.

Conservation and Energy Programs

Conservation programs are a priority for sustainability-minded individuals and organizations across the country, for the Administration, and for 33 Senators who recently delivered a letter to the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

Thanks to this robust support, we are pleased to report that the Senate Appropriations Committee left funding levels for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) intact, as prescribed by the 2014 Farm Bill.

CSP is a unique program that offers comprehensive conservation assistance to producers who actively manage and expand conservation activities like cover crops, resource-conserving crop rotations, rotational grazing, integrated pest management, and advanced nutrient management. CSP is also USDA’s largest conservation program. The Committee rightly recognized that cuts to CSP would have detrimental impacts on farmers, and seriously jeopardize their conservation efforts.

Unlike the Senate bill, the bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee last month seeks to cut next year’s CSP enrollment by 20 percent. In FY 2015, a similar cut to CSP led to 75 percent of eligible applicants being turned away from the program due to insufficient funding.

Though the Senate bill leaves CSP funding intact, it reduces farm bill funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) from $1.65 billion to $1.347 billion, a cut of $303 million. The House bill limits EQIP spending to $1.425 billion, and also permanently cancels an additional $98 million of carry-over funding, for a total cut of $323 million. Any limitation to EQIP funding included in final FY 2017 appropriations legislation would be inclusive of, not in addition to, an automatic $112 million cut known as sequestration.

In addition to the EQIP cut, the Senate bill slashes farm bill mandatory funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) by 88 percent, from $25 million to $3 million. The same funding limitation was included in last year’s final appropriations bill, and is also included in the House Committee-passed bill.

NSAC continues to assert that farm bill funding decisions should be left intact and not undone by appropriators, whose job is to allocate discretionary funding, not to rewrite legislation and change farm bill mandatory funding decisions. We strongly object to both the EQIP and BCAP cuts.

On the discretionary spending side of the ledger, we are pleased that the Senate bill includes a significant increase in funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) – from $741.6 million to $759.2 million. The House bill provides $756.6 million for CTA, which is somewhat lower than USDA’s request of $760.7 million.

CTA funding ensures that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (the agency in charge of administering federal conservation programs) can help producers assess their operations, develop conservation plans, and enroll in conservation programs. Farmers and ranchers depend heavily on this direct, on-the-ground assistance.

Legislative Riders and Senate Debate

In recent years, the annual appropriations bills have become dumping grounds for dozens of policy riders, which should in fact be the purview of policy authorizing committees, not the spending committees. Legislating on spending bills has historically been frowned upon, but lately has become more the rule than the exception.

Protecting the Rights of Livestock and Poultry Farmers — As expected, the Senate Appropriations Committee did not include what is known as the “GIPSA rider”, which has denied poultry and livestock farmers basic protections under the Packers and Stockyards Act for the last four years.

The Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 is the nation’s primary statute providing basic protections for livestock and poultry growers against fraudulent, deceptive, and retaliatory practices by meatpackers and poultry integrators. Between 2012 and 2015, the GIPSA rider prevented USDA from advancing its fair competition and contract reform rule, which it began to finalize in December 2011.

The rider was recently added to the House Committee-passed bill through a highly contentious amendment offered by Congressman Andy Harris (R-MD). The Harris amendment squeaked by on a 26-24 vote, with one member of the Committee changing his vote at the last minute. Given that the rider is only in the House and not the Senate bill, appropriations leaders in both chambers will need to negotiate whether the rider makes it into final appropriations legislation for FY 2017.

NSAC is committed to working with our partners to keep this anti-farmer rider out, and encourages Congress to allow USDA to move forward in protecting contract farmers from retaliation for exercising their basic rights – including the right to speak out against abusive behavior and contract violations by meatpackers and integrators.

National Organic Program Requirements for Organic Livestock Producers — While many observers expected an amendment to be offered to limit USDA’s ability to issue new outdoor-access requirements for organic livestock producers, no such amendment was offered during either Subcommittee or Committee debate. Instead, Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), Chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, inserted language in the Manger’s Package that directs USDA to consider the views of producers who will be negatively impacted by the new requirements, something USDA is already required to do by law.

SNAP Retailer Healthy Food Requirements – The Manager’s Package also included an amendment led by Senators Moran (R-KS) and Daines (R-MT) to constrain USDA’s ability to move forward with new regulations requiring food retailers that accept SNAP benefits to increase the availability of healthier food options.

Food Labeling – During debate of the Senate bill, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) offered two amendments on food labeling that were both approved by voice vote. The first amendment would require mandatory labeling of genetically-engineered (GE) salmon, to allow consumers to differentiate between wild-caught and GE salmon. The second amendment would change the market name for “Alaskan King Crab” to “Golden King Crab” to prevent imported crab to bear the Alaskan denomination.

Next Steps

Now that both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have passed their respective agriculture appropriations bills, the door is open for them to go to the full House and Senate for consideration. Neither bill is on the schedule for floor action yet; however, there are some indications that the Agriculture Appropriations bill and the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill in the Senate may be combined into a single package and brought to the Senate floor as early as next week.

If the bills go to either or both the House and Senate floor, they are likely to be considered under a modified open rule, meaning that a limited number of amendments would be offered, including some that are controversial.

We will continue to monitor and report on the process as it moves forward, so stay tuned.

Download the latest version of NSAC’s appropriations chart here.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Competition & Anti-trust, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, Food Safety, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

Comments are closed.