NSAC's Blog

Senate Appropriators Advance FY 2019 Agriculture Funding Bill

May 25, 2018

Senator John Hoeven. Photo credit: USDA

Each year, Congress passes far-reaching funding legislation, known as appropriations legislation, to fund federal programs across the government. This includes many of the programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

On Thursday May 24, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed its agriculture appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2019.  The Committee worked off of the bill that was passed out of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee two days earlier. The bill provides funding for food and agriculture programs ranging from food safety and rural development to farm credit and nutrition assistance. The appropriations process is moving at a historically rapid pace at the committee level, but from here things may slow down as House and Senate leadership take over from the usually congenial Committees.  The House Appropriations Committee passed its version of the FY 2019 Appropriations bill last week that had a slightly higher overall allocation for agriculture. It is also unclear when and if the full House or Senate will take up these measures before the August recess, and even then the House and Senate versions will need to be reconciled by the end of the fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

Below, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) analyzes the Senate Appropriations Committee FY 2019 bill and details how programs of relevance for family farmers and the sustainable agriculture community may be affected.

You can also take a look at our appropriations chart, which has been updated to include House Agriculture Appropriations Committee action.

Big Picture

The Senate Committee bill provides $23.235 billion in discretionary spending for FY 2019, which is $225 million above the levels provided in the FY 2018 omnibus spending package and $35 million below the levels provided in the House bill. Of the total amount included in the Senate bill, roughly $3 billion is appropriated for FDA; the remainder is dedicated to USDA programs. The following sections detail the bill’s funding for:

Conservation and Energy

We are pleased to report that the Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill makes no cuts to farm bill mandatory spending for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), USDA’s premier working lands conservation programs.

The Senate’s decision to protect working lands conservation programs, for the first time in recent history, not only bucks a years-long trend of raiding farm bill funding for conservation programs by the Senate, it is also a clear rejection of the President’s FY 2019 efforts to fully eradicate funding for CSP. We thank appropriators for recognizing the importance of CSP and EQIP to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners across the country.

In a further rejection of the President’s attempts to gut conservation programs, the Senate Appropriations Committee provided near flat funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which provides farmers with on-the ground conservation planning support. While the Senate Committee’s number of $774 million is $105 million more than the President’s request, it is $11 million less than the House Appropriations Committee’s mark approved last week. We will continue to urge Congress to adopt the higher level from the House to address the significant need for on the ground technical conservation support.

In addition to conservation programs, federal energy programs also play an important role in the growth and maintenance of sustainable operations. We are pleased that the Committee’s bill does not cut farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP); REAP has previously been a target for cuts. REAP provides grants and loans to farmers and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and purchase of wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems. It also provides support for farmers’ energy audits and renewable energy development. In protecting REAP, the Subcommittee is retaining USDA’s primary tool for helping farmers and ranchers reduce energy costs by conserving and producing energy on their land.

Farm Loans

The Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan funding levels approved by the Senate Committee are the same as what the House Committee approved and level with those for the current fiscal year. We believe these levels are commensurate with the current need. FSA is the lender of first opportunity and last resort for many American farmers, particularly beginning and socially disadvantaged producers. Maintaining support for these programs while the farm economy remains in a downturn is a must-do for Congress, and we are pleased to see the Senate Appropriations Committee approved level funding. We are also pleased to see that no attempt was made to alter the current limits on the size of FSA Guaranteed Loans.

The Committee’s bill maintains programs levels for Direct Operating Loans at $1.53 billion, Guaranteed Operations loans at $1.96 billion, Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans at $2.75 billion, and Direct Farm Ownership Loans at $1.5 billion.

For more information on the state of FSA loan programs and NSAC’s recommendations on loan limits, please check out our recent blog series.

Rural Development

Overall, the Committee’s bill rejects the severe cuts proposed to rural development in the President’s FY 2019 budget request. The bill retains level funding from FY 2018 for the Value-Added Producer Grant program (VAPG), providing $15 million in discretionary funding. It also includes an additional $2.5 million for grants to state innovation centers to offer technical assistance and outreach to farmers and ranchers engaged in value-added agriculture. Recently, USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) released a new report highlighting the critical role that VAPG has played in helping farmers and ranchers grow rural economies. The report, “USDA’s Value-Added Producer Grant Program and Its Effect on Business Survival and Growth,” illustrates the effectiveness of VAPG’s investments in supporting business development and job creation.

The Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program, which provides practical, cutting edge information to farmers and extension agents received a $1 million increase, for a total of $3.75 million in funding. Half of the increase is dedicated to the Armed to Farm Program, which helps returning military veterans learn to farm and enter the field of agriculture.

Both the VAPG and ATTRA funding levels within the Committee’s bill meet the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) requests for FY 2019.

Additionally, the Farm to School Program was able to achieve an appropriation of $5 million, which mirrors funding provided in the FY 2018 omnibus. The $5 million in discretionary funding in FY 2018 was paired with $5 million in mandatory funding provided by the Child Nutrition Act, for a total of $10 million. This will be the case once again in FY 2019, if the Senate level becomes final law. The Farm to School Program provides important capacity grants to get farm to school programs up and running.

Research and Food Safety

Research programs and food safety training funding is the Senate Committee’s bill is a mixed bag for sustainable agriculture. Unlike the House Committee, which proposed a 14 percent cut to the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), the Senate Committee includes a $2 million increase to $37 million. This would be SAREs highest level of funding since its creation in the late 1980s, and great news for farmers, ranchers, and researchers.

The Organic Transitions (ORG) research program, which was zeroed out in the President’s FY 2019 budget request, is provided $6 million, an increase of $1 million from FY 2018. NSAC has sought a funding level for ORG of at least $5 million.

Another NSAC priority program, the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) is funded at $8 million, a $1 million increase from FY 2018. NSAC had recommended that the program be funded at $10 million in FY 2019, given the 100,000 farms that could potentially be impacted by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the coming year. While the Senate’s proposed funding level of $8 million is not enough to ensure that all small farmers and processors have the training that they need to comply with FSMA, we very much appreciate the continued effort of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee to increase funding for FSOP.

Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers

NSAC was very pleased that the Senate retained the $3 million in discretionary funding for the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the “Section 2501 Program”) that was first approved in FY 2018, and also included in the House Committee’s FY 2019 agriculture spending bill. The Section 2501 Program is the only farm bill program dedicated to addressing the specific needs of farmers of color, and was also expanded in the 2014 Farm Bill to serve military veterans. The program supports institutions and nonprofits that provide critical resources, outreach, and technical assistance to serve these historically underserved producers.

The FY 2018 omnibus provided $3 million in discretionary funding for 2501 – the first time in at least a decade that the program had received discretionary funding. In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress added veteran farmers to the list of producers that the Section 2501 Program is meant to serve, but also slashed the program’s budget in half (from $20 million per year in mandatory funding to $10 million per year). The $3 million provided by the House and Senate agriculture appropriations bills is a modest, but much needed investment in this critical program. Section 2501 is also among several “tiny but mighty” programs whose farm bill funding will expire without new mandatory funding being expressly included in the 2018 Farm Bill.

Legislative Riders and the Committee Report

As has been the case in previous years, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s FY 2019 bill includes several tacked on policy riders. The riders included this year contain items like a ban on horse slaughter, a labeling requirement for GMO salmon, a directive that USDA oversee lab grown meat, and the shielding of retail Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) sales data from public disclosure.

Additionally, the bill’s accompanying Report, contains several further directives and recommendations to the Administration including several supported or requested by NSAC.

The Committee Report includes language to reduce barriers to using a single SNAP terminal at multiple markets that occur at different locations on different days. The language was requested by NSAC and is similar to language in the House Appropriation Committee’s Report.

The committee is concerned that there are unnecessary barriers and added costs for organizations that manage farmers markets in multiple locations. The Secretary shall permit such organizations to become a SNAP-authorized retailer at the level of the organization, provided that the organization notifies [Food and Nutrition Service] FNS of all market locations at which it will accept SNAP benefits. The SNAP-authorized organization will continue to bear legal responsibility for SNAP compliance at all locations it oversees, included exercising proper oversight of SNAP implementation at each participating market location.

The report also included significant language relating to the availability of the locally and regionally adapted cultivars.

The Committee notes the importance of this requirement to provide farmers nationwide with greater access to cultivars that are locally and regionally adapted to their soils, climates, and farming systems. Because of the agencies lack of progress in prioritizing this effort, the Committee directs the agency to make regionally adapted, publically held cultivar development a distinct funding priority within AFRI for fiscal year 2019, and directs the agency to take steps to improve its tracking of public cultivar project within AFRI and report its progress in meeting this goal.

The Committee is concerned about the decline in public plant and animal breeding programs at our nations land-grant institutions over the last 25 years, and encourages LGU’s to take steps to foster the next generation of public plant and animal breeder by placing a higher priority on development of publically available, regionally adapted cultivars and breeds.

Several other significant items have been included in the Report such as support for SARE, the prioritizing of conservation benefits when determining payments for conservation practices, and direction on addressing the large number of vacancies at NRCS offices.

Next Steps

Now that the House and Senate appropriators have passed their draft bills for FY 2019, the bill’s next stop will be the full House and Senate. No date for floor consideration in either body has been announced. House and Senate leadership has said they will likely consider three other appropriations bills as a package soon. That group of bills does not include the agriculture bill, so it is unclear when the agriculture bill will come up for consideration.

The next month portends a very significant time for decisions related to funding, as both the House and Senate debate bills and potentially contend with a rescissions package in the coming weeks. At the same time, Congress will be debating farm bill policy and spending levels, which is a separate process led by a separate set of committees.

As these and other dramas play out on Capitol Hill, NSAC will continue to provide timely and in-depth updates on our blog and via social media.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Commodity, Crop Insurance & Credit Programs, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Local & Regional Food Systems, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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