NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – April 20-24, 2009

April 27, 2009



SARE Sign On Letter – Deadline NOON Friday, May 1:  The NSAC Appropriations Campaign is pushing hard for a substantial increase in funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) for fiscal year 2010.  We’re asking for a $30 million appropriation, up from the current $19 million.  We all know how important, efficient and successful SARE has been.  Still, it’s going to be tough to win an increase for programs like SARE that were not included in the stimulus or specifically mentioned in the President’s budget framework released in February.

Please consider joining the more than 85 organizations that have already signed on to this letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in support of a $30 million appropriation for SARE in 2010.  Please distribute the letter among your farm, conservation, wildlife and economic development networks.  Help us send a strong message of support from an impressively diverse range of national, state and local groups for SARE. To sign on please respond to: Annette@sustainableagriculture.net by NOON EST on Friday, May 1st.  Please include “SARE” in your subject line. Organizations only please.



Budget Conference:  On Friday, April 24, a tentative agreement was reached in the House-Senate conference committee on the FY 2010 budget resolution.  On the big remaining issue of whether budget “reconciliation” procedures would be used to short-circuit Senate filibusters on health care, climate change, or education, there appears to be agreement on using reconciliation for health care reform and for education, consistent with the original House position.  If that proves true, it boosts the chances of health care reform this year, while making it even more likely that climate change legislation will still be in process into next year.

As we go to press, no confirmed information is available about where the conference is likely to end up on non-defense domestic discretionary spending.  The two houses were $8 billion apart, and both houses were considerably less than what the President requested.  The conferees are expected to meet Monday to finalize the deal that will then go to the floor votes later in the week.

Marathon House Climate Change Hearing:  On Tuesday afternoon, the House Energy and Commerce Committee commenced a 3-1/2 day hearing with more than 50 witnesses on a discussion draft of The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009.  The draft bill was released by Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA).  Rep. Markey’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment is scheduled to begin marking up the bill next week, with the aim of getting a bill to the House floor in June.

The debate focused primarily on whether the bill would increase or decrease jobs and energy costs.  In addition, Democrats and Republicans in states currently engaged in oil and coal production raised concerns about differing regional costs of the bill.

The bill is not complete, with some major issues yet to be determined.  Among the most important is whether emission credits will be issued to GHG emitters for free to start off the trading or whether the government will auction the credits.  A government auction of credits could raise revenue to deal the potential impact of higher energy costs on low-income people and could result in lower costs to both the Treasury and individual households.

The Act does not yet clearly define the role to be played by the agriculture sector, which can act as both a source and a sink for GHGs.  Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, has said he will not be stating a definitive position on energy and climate change legislation until he has reviewed the responses to a questionnaire on climate change legislation sent to more than 200 agricultural organizations in March.  The House Ways and Means Committee has also indicated it wants a say in climate change legislation.

Senate action on climate change this year is not likely.  Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has indicated she does not want to introduce separate legislation in the Senate.  In addition, the Senate passed a resolution that climate change not be included in budget reconciliation, meaning that a House climate change bill would need 60 votes to get through the Senate. But even if a climate change bill is not enacted this year, much of the groundwork for a bill will may be shaped in congressional debates this year.




More Nominations and Appointments:  Slowly but surely political appointments at USDA are moving forward.  This week’s crop includes the following.

Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs — On Friday, April 24, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack announced their intent to nominate Edward M. Avalos as USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs.  Avalos hails from New Mexico, where he worked for 29 years at the NM Department of Agriculture and established the NM Specialty Crops Program, a program that seeks to improve the economic viability of rural economies and market and promote value-added products and specialty crop projects.  He has also worked to support the production and marketing of specialty crops and value-added products through the implementation of numerous trade missions and promotions in the US and abroad.  He also worked at the Texas Department of Agriculture for five years.

Avalos grew up on a specialty crop, cotton, and wheat farm in the Mesilla Valley of Southern New Mexico.  He receives positive reviews from sustainable and organic leaders in New Mexico.

Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment — On Wednesday, April 22, the Obama Administration announced the appoint of Jay Jensen as Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment.  The major responsibility of this position is oversight of the U.S. Forest Service.

Since May 2005, Jensen has been Executive Director of the Council of Western State Foresters/Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.  The Coalition is a federal-state governmental partnership.  Jensen had served earlier as the Coalition’s Government Affairs Director.  He has also served as Senior Forestry Advisor for the Western Governors Association, where he was responsible for the biomass energy program.  Before that, as lead forestry advisor for the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture, Jensen helped develop forestry provisions under the 2002 Farm Bill.  He has also served as lead policy analyst for the National Association of State Foresters.

Farm Service Agency Administrator — Also on on Wednesday, April 22, Secretary Vilsack announced the appointment of Doug Caruso as Administrator of USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA).  FSA administers and manages farm commodity, credit, conservation, disaster, and loan programs through a network of federal, state and county offices.

Caruso returns to USDA after working as CEO of Wisconsin Farmers Union Specialty Cheese, a cheese manufacturing startup and producer of award-winning Blue and Gorgonzola products that he helped develop into a profitable operation with expanded market share.  From 1993 to 2001, Caruso was at USDA as State Executive Director of FSA in Wisconsin. From 1989 to 1993, he worked as State Director for United States Senator Herb Kohl (D-Wisconsin) and before that as general manager and communications director for the nation’s sixth largest farmer-owned milk marketing cooperative.

CSP Implementation Update
:  The implementation process for the new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) continues to make strides.  The interim rule for CSP has cleared through multiple levels of USDA reviews.  A high level meeting between USDA and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has final sign off authority on all government rules and funding availability notices, is likely to happen early next week.  As we have reported previously, roll out of the new program and the initial sign-up opportunity is listed in USDA implementation plan documents as commencing in June.

Meanwhile, Natural Resource Conservation Service staff has been busy developing the CSP sign-up tool that will be used to determine whether farmers are eligible, if eligible whether they rank high enough on existing and proposed conservation efforts to get into the program, and if in the program, what their payment rates will be.  Farmers will sit down with local NRCS staff to complete the tool.  If accepted into the program, the information entered into the tool about the farm and existing conservation practices will be verified through a site visit.

The new CSP will be implemented on a nationwide basis, with farmers and ranchers throughout the entire country eligible to apply each year.  The highest ranking offers, based on environmental benefits related to priority resource concerns for the region, will be awarded contracts.  Nearly 13 million acres a year can be enrolled.

Civil Rights Plan Announced:  On Tuesday, April 21, USDA Secretary Vilsack sent issued a deparment-wide memorandum detailing his 14-point plan to promote civil rights and equal access at USDA for applicants and employees.
Highlighting the memo is a 90-day suspension of all slated or potential farm foreclosures within FSA farm loan programs to review possible discriminatory conduct and work with the Department of Justice to review existing litigation over loan foreclosures.

The memo also announces creation of a Task Force to review a sample of program civil rights complaints, supported by independent legal counsel.  Vilsack also mentioned that USDA is consulting with Justice about how to resolve outstanding claims not previously adjudicated in the Pigford class action litigation.  Congress provided $100 million in the 2008 Farm Bill to resolve such claims, a small fraction of the amount that would be required to settle outstanding claims if earlier settlement amounts were to apply to the unsettled claims.

Vilsack’s memo also indicated that Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Joe Leonard will coordinate with field service agencies the implementation of all 2008 Farm Bill provisions related to tracking and monitoring services for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers.

On the key question of how and when USDA will implement the 2008 Farm Bill’s Office of Advocacy and Outreach, however, the memo states vaguely that the Secretary “will establish outreach, advocacy, and diversity as separate functions at USDA in keeping with the 2008 Farm Bill.”  We are interpreting that to mean, simply, that no decision has yet been made about the new Office and its two divisions, one for minority farmer issues and one for small farms and beginning farmer issues.  NSAC has on multiple occasions submitted recommendations to USDA for implementation of the Office.

CSREES Webinar on Family Farm Entrepreneurship:  This week USDA’s CSREES  issued its third Family Farm Forum newsletter and announced plans for a public webinar from 2 – 3:30 pm EST on May 11, in which issues and programs related to entrepreneurship will be discussed in more detail.  Specific topics that may be discussed include managing money in tough times, broadband internet use for farm operators, farm clusters and innovation, the Purdue University Agricultural Innovation and Commercial Center and New Ventures Team, and Claud Evans’s innovative techniques to maximize income from Spanish goats.

To participate in the webinar, you must have a high-speed internet connection.  You can test your computer’s ability to access the webinar at

http://www.extension.iastate.edu/testconnect/ anytime.  To participate on May 11th, log on to  http://connect.extension.iastate.edu/csrees/ a few minutes before 2 pm Eastern.

Public Meeting on Biotech Regulations:  The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is holding a public meeting on its proposed biotechnology rule, “Importation, Interstate Movement, and Release Into the Environment of Certain Genetically Engineered Organisms.”  The meeting will take place on April 29 and 30 at the USDA Center at Riverside in Riverdale, MD.  APHIS is seeking comments on the scope of the regulation, the incorporation of the Plant Protection Act’s noxious weed authority, elimination of the notification procedure and revision of the permit procedure, and the environmental release categories and regulation of GE crops used for industrial and pharmaceutical compounds.  The proposed rule for comment was released on October 9, 2008, and the comment period has been reopened and extended to June 29, 2009.

Organic Agriculture Survey Announced:  In early May, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS) will mail the Organic Production Survey to all known organic producers in the US.  The survey will collect information from 2008 on topics ranging from production and marketing to income and expenses.  Both organic farmers and farmers transitioning to organic production should fill out the survey by June 17.  The information collected in this survey is part of a larger initiative to collect data on organic agriculture, and will help guide future farm policy, funding allocations, and the availability of goods and services, among other things.  The survey can be completed online, but respondents will have to provide the ID number printed on the mailing label of the survey form.  For more information, click here.




EPA Publishes Proposed Greenhouse Gas Emissions Rule:  On Friday, April 24, EPA published its proposed rule finding that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health and welfare.  Publication of the proposed rule opens a 60-day comment period, which will end June 23, on a proposal that could result in EPA regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.  An endangerment finding would require EPA to issue emissions limits on six greenhouse gases–carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride–from new and modified stationary sources, as well as mobile sources, such as cars and light trucks.  Comments can be submitted by e-mail to GHG-Endangerment-Docket@epa.gov.


White House Food Safety Working Group:  On Friday, April 24, the new White House Food Safety Working Group held a briefing with stakeholders to provide a very general introduction to the Working Group, its agency members, proposed work and timeline.  Tino Cuellar, the White House Domestic Policy Council liaison to the Working Group, explained the structure of the Working Group, which includes a steering committee of representatives from the USDA, Health and Human Services (including Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control), Office of Management and Budget, and the Domestic Policy Council.

The steering committee will be developing core recommendations on food safety to be vetted with other agencies and sent to President Obama by June of this year.  They will be examining three areas for action – administrative actions as well as rulemakings under existing authorities, and legislative action.

Cuellar instructed public stakeholders to communicate with the Working Group, including suggestions, via a website at www.foodsafetyworkinggroup.gov which will be online and operational by the end of next week.




ARS Study Finds Manure from Organic Dairy to be “Slow Release”:  A study published by USDA’s Agriculture Research Service found that manure from organic dairy cows contained forms of phosphorus that are comparatively slow to dissolve and release nutrients more gradually, increasing the likelihood that they will be taken up by crops rather than running off of fields.  The study compared manure from conventional and organic dairies and found that the two types of manures had different concentrations of several nutrients.

More on the People’s Garden:  On Wednesday, NSAC staff celebrated Earth Day in solidarity with new Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan at the new USDA People’s Garden at the agency’s headquarters on the Mall in Washington.  Some inside-the-Beltway reaction to the garden has been cynical eye-rolling, but it promises to be both an attractive and informative demonstration of some basic principles of sustainable agriculture which will be seen by millions of people a year.  Plans are to eventually include a 1,300-square-foot certified organic vegetable plot, pollinator gardens, mini-wetlands and demonstrations of planting techniques to reduce stormwater runoff.

Despite rain and hail, Merrigan was upbeat, “It’s my first public event at USDA, and it’s about community gardening — isn’t that great?”  NSAC staff came home with seed for a traditional Three Sisters garden, which will soon be sprouting on the office’s Constitution Avenue windowsills.

Categories: General Interest

Comments are closed.