NSAC's Blog

Senate Appropriators Pass 2015 Agriculture Funding Bill

May 22, 2014

On Thursday, May 22, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its agriculture funding bill for fiscal year (FY) 2015.  This bill funds the activities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the next fiscal year, beginning on October 1, 2014.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) led the committee mark-up of the agriculture appropriations bill, including shepherding through several contentious amendments related to school nutrition guidelines, WIC market basket eligibility, and GMO labeling.

The Committee quickly approved the top line discretionary funding amount for all federal funding bills (including agriculture) of $1.014 trillion on a party line vote of 16 to 14.  This allocation is in line with the level agreed to as part of last year’s budget deal, and reflects a freeze on current funding levels.

The Committee then debated the agriculture bill, which includes $20.58 billion in program spending (also known as the “302(b) allocation”) for USDA and FDA activities for 2015 and is 2 percent lower than the agriculture bill that the House will debate next week.

While imperfect, the Senate’s agriculture bill is markedly improved over the House bill released earlier this week.  NSAC applauds Senate appropriators for scaling up investments in oversubscribed farm loan programs and jump-starting innovative beginning farmer and food safety programs.  We are also pleased that the bill maintains funding for key rural development grant and loan programs and provides additional support for conservation technical assistance.  Unfortunately, the bill does not provide a long overdue increase in funding for sustainable agriculture research, under-invests in rural economic development, and cuts mandatory conservation spending.

Below is a detailed breakdown of the Senate bill (including provisions that were adopted by amendment during this week’s Committee markup).  See our blog post from earlier this week to read more about the House bill, and click here to see NSAC’s Appropriations Chart (still pending details on select programs).

Research, Education, Extension, and Food Safety Outreach

We are delighted that the Senate bill provides $2.5 million to launch a new program that would provide outreach and technical assistance to farmers to assist them in implementing new food safety standards.  The Food Safety Outreach Program, previously known as the National Food Safety Training, Education, Extension, Outreach and Technical Assistance program, was authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2010 and has yet to receive any funding from appropriators.  Without training resources available, the final food safety regulations under FSMA will be a significant burden for small and midsize farmers and processors, and will inevitably fall far short of the goal of improving food safety.  We applaud appropriators for recognizing this critical training need.

On the whole, the Senate bill increases funding for agricultural research, mainly through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) – USDA’s largest competitive research program that provides grants to academic, private and non-profit institutions to conduct agricultural research, education, and extension activities.  And while the Senate bill increases funding for AFRI to $325 million (a modest 3 percent increase), the bill does not provide any additional funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and maintains FY14 levels of $22.7 million for next year.

SARE is the only USDA competitive grant research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research, and NSAC is disappointed that the Committee did not provide an increase in funding for this important research program as they did with other research programs.  NSAC continues to urge appropriators to fund SARE at $30 million — which would still only be half of its authorized level after 25 years of successful, on the ground research that has continually responded to the needs and challenges farmers face in their fields every day.

The Senate bill also provides level funding for both the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (also known as “ATTRA”) at $2.25 million and the Organic Transitions research program at $4 million and provides report language similar to the House’s bill in support of classical breeding research.

We do not yet know how much discretionary funding the bill makes available for organic data collection; however, the Senate bill does include encouraging language urging USDA to maintain important data collection activities such as the Organic Production Survey (conducted as a follow-on survey to the Census of Agriculture) and organic price information needed to expand crop insurance to organic producers.  The 2014 Farm Bill provides a total of $5 million in mandatory funding for organic data collection over the life of the farm bill.

Rural Development and Farm Loan Programs

The Senate bill provides the historic funding increase to Farm Service Agency (FSA) direct farm loans that was included in both the President’s budget request and the House subcommittee bill.  This includes total program levels of $1.5 billion for farm ownership loans to purchase farmland, and $1.25 billion for farm operating loans to cover annual operating expenses.  This significant boost in funding represents an increase of over 260 percent for direct farm ownership loans – which will allow FSA to begin to address the backlog of farmers that they have had to turn away in recent years for lack of sufficient funding.

NSAC is also pleased that the Senate provides first-time funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Account (BFRIDA) program.  The program was created in the 2008 Farm Bill and reauthorized in the 2014 Farm Bill but has yet to receive any funding to date.  The Senate bill provides the $2.5 million requested by the President to launch this innovative matched savings account program that will provide limited resource farmers with financial training and assistance so they can build assets and make needed purchases to get started in agriculture.  With the recent Census figures showing the continued aging of our farm population, now could not be a more important time to launch this new resource to help more aspiring farmers start successful farm businesses.

The bill also provides $15 million in needed funding for Value-Added Producer Grants – which is one of USDA’s most effective economic development programs that helps farmers build and expand value-added enterprises on their farms.  The amount provided in the Senate bill is in addition to the $63 million provided in the Farm Bill and 27 percent above both the House and President’s requests.

While neither the Senate nor House bills cut mandatory funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, neither bill provides any additional funding to this important rural economic development program.  This program has received no appropriated funding in any of the past four appropriations cycles, but does have $3 million in direct funding provided by the farm bill.  NSAC will be urging appropriators to secure additional funding for FY15 in the final funding bill.

Finally, the bill provides level funding for the Business and Industry Loan Guarantee program, which includes a set-aside of $47.9 million for local and regional food enterprise development.

Conservation and Energy Programs

We are pleased that the Senate bill protects far more funding for important conservation and renewable energy programs than its House counterpart.  Whereas the House bill cuts almost $200 million from the Conservation Stewardship Program, the new Agricultural Conservation Easement Program and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), the Senate bill leaves the mandatory funding provided by the farm bill intact.  However, we are disappointed that both the House and Senate bill once again cut mandatory conservation dollars from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – the House by $209 million and the Senate by $250 million.  Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee fiercely debated appropriate funding levels for all mandatory conservation programs during debate of the 2014 Farm Bill, and NSAC continues to urge appropriators to respect the jurisdiction of the authorizing committees by leaving mandatory funding intact.

The Senate bill does provide an additional $1.3 million in discretionary funding for REAP loan guarantees on top of the mandatory funding provided by the Farm Bill.

Finally, we are pleased that the Senate bill provides $849 million for Conservation Operations, which is an increase of $36 million over last year’s funding level.  USDA’s ability to deliver conservation programs to farmers and ranchers depends heavily on on-the-ground conservation technical assistance, which makes up the bulk of the Conservation Operations account.  NSAC led the charge in securing this increase in funding to accommodate for newly required rental payments that USDA must pay out of the Conservation Operations account in FY 2015.

Nutrition and Labeling Amendments

School nutrition guidelines, fruit and vegetable eligibility for the WIC Supplemental program, and labeling of GMO salmon were some of the most contentious amendments that were debated during the three hour markup of the agriculture bill this week.

Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and John Hoeven (R-ND) offered a successful amendment to address the acceptable range of whole grain products offered in schools to meet the most recent school nutrition standards.  The amendment gives the Secretary of Agriculture the flexibility to recognize that certain whole grain products aren’t available or sufficient in some schools and allow them to offer an alternative instead.  The amendment would also provide training and assistance to help schools address plate waste and participation rates.  Sen. Hoeven’s secondary amendment that would provide schools with a hardship exemption if they could not meet the whole grain requirement was withdrawn after receiving a commitment from Chairman Pryor (D-AR) and Sen. Harkin to address this issue via report language.

Senators Pryor and Collins (R-ME) offered another successful amendment that introduces fresh potatoes into the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, through a supplemental fresh fruit and vegetable component of the program.  Included in the amendment is a requirement for the Secretary of Agriculture to review the nutritional content of all fruits and vegetables in the program, including the potato.  Sen. Harkin vehemently opposed the amendment, arguing that an expedited review of the potato’s nutritional content should take place before it was added to the program.  This issue is likely to resurface as the bill heads to the Senate floor for debate.

Sen. Murkowski (R-AK) also offered a successful amendment that requires the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to label genetically engineered salmon.  As the FDA moves towards approval of the first transgenic animal allowed in the food system, she argued that there are dangerous implications for the wild salmon populations and local economies, and consumers have a right to know that they are consuming genetically engineered salmon.  This provision was included in last year’s funding bill but stripped out during conference.

Fortunately, there were no attempts during Committee markup of the agriculture appropriations bill to roll back farmer protections under the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.  The so-called “GIPSA rider” was included in last year’s Senate bill, and unfortunately is included in this year’s House subcommittee bill.

The same issues were considered during this year’s debate over the farm bill and rejected by the Agriculture Committee leaders who have jurisdiction over this issue.  The House subcommittee rider is anti-farmer and, substance aside, has no rightful place in an appropriations bill.  NSAC will be urging members to oppose the House rider and fight to keep this provision out of the final 2015 agriculture funding bill.

The full Senate is expected to take up the 2015 agriculture funding bill on the floor later this summer.  The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to markup and approve their draft agriculture spending bill late next week, so stay tuned for more updates next week as the 2015 Appropriations process continues to unfold.

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Food Safety, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development

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