NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update, April 27- May 1, 2009

May 4, 2009

SARE Earns Impressive Support: More than 220 state, regional and national food, farm, conservation and faith groups have signed on to a letter circulated by NSAC in support of increased funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE).  That so many organizations stepped up over a short nine day sign on period speaks to the importance of this program to the sustainable agriculture community.

The letter seeks an FY10 appropriation for SARE of $30 million, with $25 million allocated to research and education and $5 million to extension and professional development.

Increased funding will allow SARE to launch two new and important program initiatives.  SARE would be able to initiate an authorized but never before funded state matching grant program to further state and local sustainable food and agriculture research projects.  Increased funding would also allow SARE to move forward with a new set of long-term systems projects to investigate and develop climate friendly farming system innovations.

NSAC submitted the letter as testimony to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee and is in the process of also delivering it to each member of the House and Senate Appropriations Committee.

NSAC Appropriations Testimony Submitted:  NSAC submitted its FY 10 funding requests to the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, and will repeat the process this coming week with the Senate Subcommittee.  Among the highlights are recommendations to increase SARE, Value-Added Producer Grants, and Rural Micro-enterprise Grants funding up to $30 million each, as well as requests for $5 million each for the new Beginning Farmer Individual Development Accounts (IDA) program and the Organic Data Initiative.

Reminder – Beginning Farmer Grant Proposals due May 13:  A total of $17.2 million is available to fund beginning farmer projects under the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, with applications due May 13.  For more information on the application process, see http://www.csrees.usda.gov/fo/beginningfarmerandrancher.cfm.




LAST WEEK(April 27-May 1)

Congressional Budget Resolution Finalized:  Late Wednesday, April 29, on President Obama’s 100th day in office, Congress approved the final version of its FY 10 budget resolution, including procedural instructions that improve chances for health care and student loan reforms this calendar year.  Under reconciliation rules, those two bills are not required to achieve super majorities in the Senate.  The budget resolution did not provide for reconciliation for climate change legislation as originally sought by the White House and the House-passed budget resolution, making chances of passage this year a tougher climb.

The Senate approved the conference report (S. Con. Res. 13) 53-43, following the House 233-193 vote.

The final margin in the House was secured by a trade-off sought by the House Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats.  In return for allowing fixes to the Alterative Minimum Tax, middle class tax breaks, and estate taxes, all big ticket items, to go forward without offsets, they received House leadership support for making “pay-go” rules statutory instead of mere operating rules of Congress.  With that deal in place, only 13 of 51 Blue Dogs voted against the budget.

Ironically, making pay-go statutory would also have the effect of turning over control of determining the official cost of legislation from the Congressional Budget Office to the White House Office of Management and Budget, increasing the power of the Administration to work its will.  It is not yet clear whether the Senate would approve of a House-passed measure on statutory pay-go for precisely this reason.

Though widely reported as a victory for President Obama and his budget proposal, the final bill nonetheless took big bites out the President’s proposal.  For starters, the budget assumes cuts relative to the President’s request of nearly $200 billion over the next five years from non-defense domestic discretionary spending.  For FY 10, $10 billion was lopped off of the President’s request for domestic discretionary spending.  In addition, the resolution provides less money for extension of middle class tax cuts than Obama wanted.

In big round numbers, the FY 10 budget anticipated by the resolution would be $3.55 trillion (of which just over $1 trillion is discretionary spending), with more than a third of that total, nearly $1.2 billion, deficit-financed.  Under the assumptions of the resolution, the deficit would shrink to $523 billion, or 14 percent of total expenditures, by 2014.

The inclusion of budget reconciliation for health care reform and for student loan reform is a double edge sword for proponents of those measures.  While it eliminates the possibility of a filibuster in the Senate, it also brings into play the “Byrd rule” which requires that all provisions in a bill under reconciliation procedures to be directly budget-related.  That could greatly complicate the substance of a bill as complex as health care reform.

Review of Civil Rights at USDA:  On Wednesday, April 29, the Department Operations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing to review the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.  Subcommittee Chairman Joe Baca (D-CA) offered opening remarks, echoed by others on the Subcommittee, emphasizing that “USDA has been marked by discrimination for too long.”  He said that 14,000 discrimination complaints have been filed against USDA since 2000 and that it is “unacceptable” that a “shockingly low” four of them are currently being investigated.

David Scott (D-GA) congratulated Joe Leonard, Jr. on his appointment and confirmation as USDA Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.  Scott expressed confidence that Secretary Vilsack “understands the immensity of the problem” of the legacy of discrimination at USDA.

Lisa Shames of the Government Accountability Office explained the findings and recommendations that resulted from a study her office made of long-standing civil rights issues at USDA.  The study found that there is a backlog of discrimination complaints, that USDA’s data on minority participation in farm programs is unreliable, and that as a result of limited strategic planning on USDA’s part, community groups’ access to farm programs has been limited.  GAO recommends that Congress make the “Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights subject to a statutory performance agreement,” and establish “a USDA civil rights oversight board.”  GAO also recommends “that the Secretary of Agriculture explore the potential for an ombudsman office to help address the civil rights concerns of USDA customers and employees.”  Shames and Leonard each said that USDA is acting on these recommendations.

Small Business Committee Hears from Farm Groups on Climate Legislation:  Also on Wednesday, April 29, the House Small Business Committee heard testimony from the National Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union on climate change legislation.  Farm groups fear that passage of a cap and trade bill will raise input costs for farmers and are uncertain what the rules of the game will be with respect to carbon offsets that might provide a new source of revenue for farmers.

Most farm groups support greenhouse gas offset provisions, expecting that farms will qualify for payments for adopting conservation measures that sequester carbon in soils, plants and trees or that capture emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations.   Many climate groups, on the other hand, believe that offsets could create unnecessary loopholes that allow firms to dodge real greenhouse gas limits.

The draft bill being marked up in the House Energy and Commerce Committee does include robust offset provisions.  However, that bill would give control over offsets and the detailed rules that will be necessary to administrate them to the EPA.  The farm groups testified in support of turning over control of agricultural offsets to USDA.  Small Business Chair Nydia Velazquez indicated she would communicate with Energy and Commerce leadership on the issues raised in the hearing.


Value-Added Producer Grants Announcement:  We expect that the FY 09 Notice of Funding Availability for the Value-Added Producer Grants program will be announced sometime this coming week.  Stay tuned for details!

Organic Conversion Assistance:  The 2008 Farm Bill created a new organic conversion payment option within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.  We expect there may be an announcement about this new option from USDA this week.  Again, stay tuned for details!

Obama Budget to be Released:  With the Congressional budget resolution finalized, Congress is now ready to allocate pieces of the budget pie to each of its appropriations subcommittees so they can get started writing their funding bills for 2010.  However, they now need to wait for one more step to be completed first – the release of the complete budget request from the Administration.   Normally released at the beginning of February, the budget has been delayed this year by the change in Administrations.  The complete budget, with details on each and every line item, is now due out this week.  We will provide a full report on priority sustainable agriculture programs to our readers next week.

Supplemental Appropriation on Deck:  This coming Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee will begin work on the emergency supplemental FY 09 funding bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and various peacekeeping missions and foreign aid considerations.  The bill already exceeds $80 billion and additional funding will be added for pandemic flu considerations and other emergencies.

NSAC will continue to request that Congress add emergency funding to make up for the severe shortfall in direct farm lending for farm ownership and operating loans.  Though Congress added direct operating loan funding in the stimulus bill passed earlier this year, that money is already distributed and USDA is still short of funding relative to demand.  The situation is even more severe with respect to ownership loans.  It is estimated that Congress needs to provide an additional $50-plus million to resolve the crisis.

Farm Foreclosure Amendment May be offered in Senate:  Senators Feingold (D-WI) and Gillibrand (D-NY) may offer an amendment to provide debt restructuring options to farmers who are being foreclosed on by banks benefiting from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).  The Senate will resume consideration of S. 896, the Helping Families Save their Homes Act of 2009, on Tuesday.  The bill improves rules and programs for home loan borrowers.

Under existing Treasury Department rules for the TARP program, banks receiving bail out funding must work with borrowers on foreclosure mitigation plans.  Farms are not afforded the same protection.  The Feingold amendment would require bailed out banks to offer farm loan restructuring to farms in forclosure if restructured loan would be worth as much or more to the bank than the amount they would receive from foreclosure.  Those restructuring rules already exist with respect to government loans, but the amendment would extend the option to bank loans.  The bank trade associations have been lobbying against the amendment.  For more information on supporting the amendment, contact Becky Ceartas at becky@rafiusa.org.

Let’s Do (School) Lunch! On Tuesday, May 5, (Cinco de May) 40,000 U. S. school children, members of Congress and NSAC staff will be enjoying carrot quesadillas, stuffed peppers and refrascante salad thanks to Chicago’s Healthy Schools Campaign.  The menu, designed by Chicago high school students, is nutritious, delicious and affordable and some of them will be cooking it with White House Chef Sam Kass in DC as part of a special briefing on how to improve the school lunch program — including support for farm to school programs!

NSAC members are encouraged to get the invitation to lunch out with e-mail letters to Congress to ensure that the rural and farm state representatives hear early about farm to school and understand that this is important to them, too.  This is the first large publicity event targeting the upcoming Child Nutrition Act reauthorization and we are thrilled that it includes attention to farm to school.  More information is at www.healthyschoolscampaign.org/i/alerts/2009/april/lunch2.htm

Senate Confirmation Hearings Scheduled for Next Week:  On Thursday, May 7 at 10:30 AM EST, the Senate Agriculture Committee will be holding the hearing to consider the nominations to USDA of Dallas Tonsager for Under Secretary of Agriculture for Rural Development; Rajiv Shah for Under Secretary of Research, Education and Economics; and Krysta Harden for Assistant Secretary of Congressional Relations.



Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) Contract Extension:  USDA Secretary Vilsack announced on Friday, May 1, that USDA will offer extensions of CRP contracts to landowners with contracts having the highest environmental benefit or with the highest potential for soil erosion control.  CRP contracts cannot exceed 15 years in the aggregate, so CRP contract holders will generally be offered a three to five year extension.

USDA can only extend approximately 1.5 million acres out of a total 3.9 million acres expiring in 2009. And there will be no general CRP signup in 2009 to ensure that overall CRP acreage meets a 32 million acre limitation established in the 2008 Farm Bill.

FSA will notify eligible participants by letter beginning May 6, 2009.  The sign-up for this voluntary extension will begin on May 18 and run through June 30, 2009.  Landowners may continue to enroll relatively small, highly-desirable acreages, including CRP acreage that is not extended, into the continuous CRP.  Continuous CRP includes such practices as filter strips, contour strips, and riparian buffers.

NSAC is also urging USDA to expedite implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill provision which provides incentives to landowners to transfer land coming out of the CRP to beginning or socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers who use sustainable grazing or crop production methods.  These new farmers and ranchers would be allowed to incorporate conservation measures or begin the transition to organic production one year before the CRP contract expires.  This measure could help maintain the conservation performance of land coming out of the CRP.  To date, however, the Department has refused to release the program from a multi-year environmental review process.

Job Openings at the National Organic Program:  There are four positions open at USDA’s National Organic Program.  For the job announcement, click here.

Rural Coop Development NOSA Out:  On Wednesday, April 29, USDA issued the Notice to Solicit Applications for the Rural Cooperative Development Center Grants.  USDA has $4.4 million for the RCDC program for FY 2009.  The agency will be awarding grants of up to $200,000 to colleges, universities, and non-profits to create and operate centers that help rural cooperatives.  The grants require a 25 percent match.  Applications are due by June 29, 2009.  The application guide for this grant program can be found at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rbs/coops.htm.

Grants Awarded to States for Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program:  On Tuesday, April 28, Secretary Vilsack announced $22.4 million in grant awards to states for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.  Over 16,600 farmers will accept the coupons at more than 5,800 markets, roadside stands and CSA programs.  For a list of totals awarded by state and tribal organizations, click on the link above.

More USDA Positions Filled:  On Monday, April 27,  President Obama announced that he is nominating Pearlie S. Reed as USDA’s Assistant Secretary for Administration.  Reed served as state conservationist in Maryland and California and was the Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief from 1998-2002.  He has received numerous honors during his USDA career including the Professional Service Award from the National Association of Conservation Districts and the Presidential Rank Award – the highest award that can be given to a career government official.  He graduated from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and received a Master of Public Administration degree from the American University, Washington, D.C.

Two more agricultural aids are leaving Capitol Hill for the Department.  Jonathan Coppess, agricultural aid to Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) will now be Deputy Administrator of the Farm Service Agency.  Brandon Willis, aid to Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) is going to the same agency to serve as Special Assistant to the Administrator.

Tracking USDA’s Recovery Act Spending:  On Wednesday, April 29, the 100th day of the Obama Administration, USDA Secretary Vilsack held a media conference call to provide a USDA progress report.  As part of the conference call, USDA also launched a new web tool to allow Americans to learn where and how USDA is spending funds provided in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  The new geospatial mapping web-function debuted at www.USDA.gov/recovery shows exactly where and how USDA is spending every dollar of Recovery Act funding across the nation.

Des Moines Register reporter Philip Brasher provided a 100-day retrospective on Secretary Vilsack in an article posted on Thursday.

USDA Announces Public Meetings on NAIS:  The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced that it is holding seven public meetings to gather feedback on the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).  The meetings are occurring in Harrisburg, PA (May 14); Pasco, WA (May 18); Austin, TX (May 20); Birmingham, AL (May 21); Louisville, KY (May 22); Storrs, CT (May 27); and Greeley, CO (June 1).  APHIS will be gathering feedback both at these meetings and through its website.  APHIS is seeking comments on cost, impact on small farmers, privacy and confidentiality, liability, premises registration, animal identification, and animal tracing.  All people planning to attend must register before the meeting.



EPA Seeks Ecosytem Grant Applications and Grant Reviewers:   In February 2009, EPA announced that it is taking applications for a grant program entitled Enhancing Ecosystem Services from Agricultural Lands: Management, Quantification, and Developing Decision Support Tools.  The program is a joint program with USDA.  The USDA funding comes from the Agricultural and Food Research Initiative and the EPA funding from its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program.  Applications are due May 26, 2009. The request for applications and additional information is posted on EPA’s website.

In addition, EPA is seeking members for its peer review panel for grant applications.  The agency is particularly interested in having qualified representatives from NGOs — those with Ph.Ds or other advanced degrees in relevant fields — on the panel.  Contact Anne Sergeant at  Sergeant.Anne@epamail.epa.gov as soon as possible, if you are interesting in serving on the review panel or have suggestions for reviewers.

OMB Clears Renewable Fuels Standard:  On Thursday, April 30, the White House Office of Management and Budget cleared an EPA proposed rule that would determine which biofuels qualify as renewable fuels under the terms of the energy bill.  The EPA proposal included a proposal to count greenhouse gases released by land use changes at home and abroad as an indirect result of increased corn ethanol production in the US.  That proposal was opposed by the ethanol industry, but is rumored to have survived OMB review.  With OMB clearance in hand, EPA can now proceed to finalize and issue the proposed rule for public comment.  EPA is required to issue a final rule by December 17 of this year.



Crop Rotation on Organic Farms Manual Coming Soon:  Crop Rotation on Organic Farms: A Planning Manual is going to be available this summer from the Natural Resource, Agriculture and Engineering Service and funded in part by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE).  The manual will provide an in-depth review of the applications of crop rotation as well as information for how to make rotation planning maps and on the transition to organic farming.  For more information, click here.

Immokalee Workers and Bon Appetite Management Reach Accord on Labor Conditions: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization representing farmworkers in Florida, and the California-based Bon Appetit Management, one of the country’s biggest food service companies, have reached an agreement on fair labor conditions.  Bon Appetit has agreed to pay a penny more per pound for Florida tomatoes and in turn will require tomato growers to pay the workers a minimum fair wage, have time clocks to track hours worked, allow workers to complain without retribution, establish a worker-controlled health and safety committee and allow for third party monitoring that includes workers.

Bon Appetit, which runs 400 campus and corporate cafe sites in 29 states, has indicated it will boycott growers who do not pass along the additional penny per pound to workers or violate the measures to improve working conditions.  To date, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which includes about 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers, has indicated that it will not adopt the code of conduct or pass on the additional payment for the tomatoes to workers.  Conditions for agricultural laborers in Florida are notorious – with federal prosecutions of seven slavery rings, holding over 1000 workers captive, since 1997.  Additional information, including the agreements, photographs of living and working conditions and links to news stories is on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ website at http://www.ciw-online.org/.

The Save Rob ’09 Campaign:  Rob Marqusee, the Director of Rural Development for Woodbury County in Iowa, announced on Tuesday that during the month of June he will only eat foods grown within 100 miles of the Woodbury County Courthouse.  The goal of the ‘Save Rob ’09 Campaign’ is to raise awareness of the shortage of new farmers in the area, the limited range of crops produced, and the lack of security in the local food system.

“It would be a sad irony that Iowans would starve if there were a disruption in the national food system,” said George Boykin of the Woodbury County Board of Supervisors, which supports Marqusee’s effort.  “We in Iowa…have ignored small food production as key to rural and urban economic development…. This is meant to make people think about the opportunity in front of their face,” said Marqusee.

With no wheat or wheat flour produced within 100 miles of the Courthouse, no coffee or tea, no salt or sugar, and no meat since cattle and chickens are fed non-local feed, it could be a very long month for Mr. Marqusee.

Categories: General Interest

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