March 14, 2014
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies today to discuss the Department’s FY 2015 Budget Request, which he delivered to Congress earlier this month. The Subcommittee will consider USDA’s requests as it writes its agriculture funding bill for the year.
In addition to considering the Administration’s FY 15 Budget Request, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees will receive requests from other Members of Congress. Those requests are due by March 31.
Secretary Vilsack was questioned on a wide range of issues, including poultry plant inspections, rural housing, nutrition, and farm bill implementation.
Local and Regional Food Systems
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), who championed the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 along with her Senate counterpart–Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), asked the Secretary about USDA’s efforts to support small and very small meat and poultry processing facilities as part of a comprehensive effort to build vibrant local and regional food systems.
In 2012, USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that while per capita meat consumption has been declining in the US, beef produced in natural, certified organic, and grass-fed systems has grown about 20 percent per year for several years. Sales of foods sold direct-to-consumer have doubled in the past decade, yet, direct-to-consumer meat and poultry sales have not kept similar pace, despite the fact that most direct-to-consumer meat is produced in the systems mentioned above. The ERS report states, “The total number of small-scale livestock slaughter facilities has declined over the past 10 years, as have slaughter volumes at small-sized plants – the same facilities in which local producers typically process livestock.”
Rep. Pingree noted that small producers cite the lack of access to slaughter and processing facilities as the main hindrance to entering the market, and she asked the Secretary to outline the training and technical assistance that it is offering to small and very small processing plants. The Secretary explained that USDA operates a “Small Plant Help Desk” that assists owners and operators of small processing plants. The Department also operates a website and a newsletter that were viewed by tens of thousands of individuals in FY 2014.
The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013 called for the creation of an advisory group to help develop guidance on food safety requirements, process controls and pathogen prevention in small processing plants, and proposed that USDA work with this stakeholder group to develop a report and set of recommendations on steps that could be taken to assist small processors. Congresswoman Pingree urged Secretary Vilsack to consider moving these two proposals forward under USDA’s existing authorities.
Payment Limit Reform
During the 2013 and 2014 Farm Bill debates, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) championed the effort to restore integrity and fiscal responsibility to the commodity program portion of the farm safety net. His aim, along with his Senate counterparts–Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tim Johnson (D-SD)–was to place a hard cap on farm program payments and close current loopholes to ensure payments go to working farmers.
As a result of their efforts, Congress included both the payment limit and the loophole closure (known as “actively engaged in farming” rules) in the House- and Senate-passed farm bills in 2013. Yet, in the final Farm Bill Conference Committee negotiations, conferees stripped the bipartisan payment limit and actively engaged in farming reforms that were included in both the House and Senate bills.
At today’s appropriations hearing, Congressman Fortenberry called this move a “distortion of the process.” He argued that the final Farm Bill, nonetheless, provides some authority for the Secretary to address the loophole by defining “actively engaged in farming.” The Congressman made note of a recent GAO report that highlights the ongoing, serious problems that exist in USDA’s implementation and enforcement of existing payment limits for commodity production subsidies.
Secretary Vilsack explained that USDA would likely issue a proposed rule for the actively engaged definition before the end of calendar year 2014, but provided little insight into what the substance of the proposed rule might be.
For more information on the commodity program reforms contained in the 2014 Farm Bill, visit our farm bill drill down.
In the next two or three weeks, the House and Senate Subcommittees will hold a number of hearings to consider the FY 2015 Budget Requests for each individual USDA mission area, including rural development; natural resources and environment; food safety; and research, education, economics, among others. These hearing have yet to be announced; however, we will continue to monitor and report on the process as Congress gets closer to writing its FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bills.