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Weekly Update – December 14-18, 2009

December 21, 2009

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NSAC Staff

In last week’s Weekly Update story about the NSAC climate change and agriculture webinar, we inadvertently identified our friends and co-webinar presenters at the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN) as the California Climate Action Network.


Farm to School Bills Introduced and Soon to Be Introduced! NSAC learned last week that Representative Rush Holt (NJ-12) will be introducing a bill in the next few weeks that proposes to authorize $50 million in mandatory funding for the Farm to School program.  NSAC and its farm to school collaborative partners, the Community Food Security Coalition and Farm to School Network are encouraging people to contact their Representatives and urge them to co-sponsor Rep. Holt’s bill.  If you have any questions, please contact the NSAC office: 202-547-5754.  If the bill is introduced yet this week, we will issue a blog posting with more information.

Also last week, Representative Sam Farr (CA-17) introduced the Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Act (HR 4333) which includes several provisions that would increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in school cafeterias, as well as $50 million in mandatory funding for the Farm to School program.  HR 4333 has been referred to the House Education and Labor Committee and Agriculture Committee.

NSAC is quite pleased to see our efforts on Farm to School begin to take shape as legislation and we congratulate Representative Farr and Holt for their leadership.  The reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is expected to be front and center in Congress next year (see related article below).

Appeals Court Overturns Decision in Wheeler Packers & Stockyards Act Case:  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued an opinion on Tuesday, December 15 which overturned a lower court decision in Wheeler v. Pilgrim’s Pride, Inc. that favored farmers.  The case involved farmers contracted to grow chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride who claimed that the company provided undue preferences to certain growers.  The lower court ruled that farmers bringing a claim of undue preferences and unfair and deceptive practices under Section 202 of the Packers & Stockyards Act did not need to prove that the specific unfair practice at issue had an adverse effect on competition.  The Fifth Circuit overruled the lower court concluding that farmers must prove a lessening of competition, even if there is clear evidence that a defendant had exercised undue preferences or undertaken unfair and deceptive practices in the company’s dealings with farmers.

Crop Insurance – Child Nutrition Trial Balloon:  According to a Congress Daily story published on Thursday, December 17, the Obama Administration has explored the idea that cuts in crop insurance subsidies might be used to offset proposed funding increases for school lunch and related feeding programs.  Periodically USDA must renegotiate a subsidy package with crop insurance companies, a process which started in its most recent iteration earlier this month.  The 2008 Farm Bill already took escalating crop insurance company federal funding down a few notches to help pay for other farm bill activities and now USDA is proposing further cuts, to the tune of a reported $4 billion over the next five years.

Congress Daily reported that the Administration is contemplating using these potential savings to help cover the costs of the school lunch program.  Last year the White House proposed increasing the school meal payments by $1 billion a year.  Congress rejected the Obama proposal to pay for the increase by cutting commodity program subsidies, then extended the current version of the Child Nutrition Act by one year to give itself more time to come up with a funding formula.  Unknown as of this writing is whether the Administration will once again propose a $1 billion a year increase and, if so, how it will propose to pay for the increase.  Congress intends to take up the nutrition bill in 2010.

The proposed trade-off hinted at in the Congress Daily article has a fatal flaw with respect to next year’s congressional action on the Child Nutrition Act.  Savings that are achieved administratively, as would be the case with crop insurance re-negotiation, cannot be claimed as offsets by Congress.  For this trade-off to work to fund child nutrition, Congress would have to legislate the crop insurance cuts, a proposition which would at the very least be highly controversial within the Agriculture Committees.  It would also require the House Agriculture Committee, which does not have jurisdiction over the Child Nutrition Act, to get into the bill drafting and mark-up process, a move that would undoubtedly not be welcomed by the committee of jurisdiction, the House Education and Labor Committee.


Update on EQIP Organic Initiative:  There has been confusion over how USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will be implementing the Organic Initiative administered through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in 2010.  NRCS has not yet sent guidance to the states with changes and updates to the 2009 version despite having allocated $50 million to the initiative earlier this fall.  Here is the most up-to-date information:

  • The 2010 guidance to the states has not yet been released and is likely to be released in early to mid January.  The hold-up is due in part to an analysis that NRCS is conducting on states’ effort to develop payment schedules accurate for organic and transitioning farmers.
  • States holding sign-ups now are doing so prematurely and when the guidance is released it will require states to hold a reasonable sign-up period, regardless of the regular EQIP sign-up deadline.
  • Applications pending from the 2009 sign up will be eligible for the 2010 sign up, and NRCS is expected to ask states to send letters to those applicants with information about their options for inclusion in 2010 sign up and any modifications they might be asked to make.

If farmers are interested in signing up for regular EQIP or the Organic Initiative, they should make contact as soon as possible with the local NRCS office to begin the application process.  When the 2010 guidance for the Organic Initiative is released, the full details of the application can be determined for farmers applying to that particular funding pool.  Updated information will be posted on NSAC’s Organic Initiative page.

CSP Update:  At the close of last week, the Natural Resources Conservation Service made a final decision on cropland, pasture, and range land payment rates for Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) contracts from the 2009 sign-up.  Those payment rates per land use will be multiplied by the total number of payments points in each contract proposal submitted by farmers and ranchers.  All 2009 CSP applicants will be contacted with the total payment amount and can then decide whether or not to accept the contract.  The current expectation is for the contracts to all be finalized by the end of January.

New Hoop House Initiative
:  On Wednesday, December 16, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the launch of a three-year study on the effectiveness of high tunnels (sometimes called hoop houses) on the conservation of natural resources.  The study will verify if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, extending the growing season, increasing yields, and the retention of nutrients in the soil.  The Natural Resource Conservation Service will be providing assistance by funding one high tunnel per farm in the participating 38 states.  Funding is through NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

To see a high tunnel be placed in the White House garden click here.  To find out if your state is participating in the high tunnel study, click here.  If you are in one of the 12 states that has not yet opted to participate in the pilot, there is still time for your NRCS state office to decide to opt in, but they need to move quickly.  If you would like to see your state participate and it is not currently opted in, call the state office and press your case.

NRCS Issues Final Rule for State Technical Committees:  On Thursday, Dec. 17, NRCS issued the final rule for the operation of State Technical Committees (STCs) and Local Working Groups.  The Federal Register announcement also discussed changes to the NRCS Standard Operating Procedures for State Technical Committees.

NSAC is pleased to see that a number of our recommendations in comments on the proposed rule were included in the final rule.  These include, among others, requirements that:  NRCS State Conservationists provide STCs with response to their recommendations within 90 days; that non-profit organizations are eligible to serve on Local Working Groups; that Local Working Group decisions be provided to STCs; and that STC membership will include to the extent practicable individuals who can represent the concerns of beginning farmers and ranchers, as well as minorities, women, persons with disabilities and socially and economically disadvantaged groups.

Marketing Grant RFP Released:  On Tuesday, December 15, USDA announced a new round of funding to study the challenges associated with marketing agricultural products.  The Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program (FSMIP) provides matching funds to state departments of agriculture and state agricultural experiment stations who propose ways to help market, transport and distribute United States-produced food and agricultural products domestically and internationally.

“Given the broad flexibility of this program there are endless possibilities for creative projects, such as increasing consumption of locally produced foods in hospitals or to exploring opportunities for sales of locally grown and processed products in school vending machines,” said Edward Avalos, Under Secretary for USDA’s Marketing and Regulatory Programs.

Although only state agencies are able to apply, collaborations with community based organizations and academic institutions are highly encouraged.  Program guidelines, application forms and other related information are posted on the Internet at www.ams.usda.gov/FSMIP.

USDA Announces Roundtables on Jobs and Economic Growth:  On Tuesday, December 15, Secretary Vilsack announced that USDA Rural Development state directors and Farm Service Agency state executive directors will host roundtables to discuss ideas to accelerate job growth in rural areas, including promoting local businesses and supporting job growth in small businesses.  The roundtables started two days after the announcement and extend to February.

For a list of forum dates and locations, click here.

Job Openings at National Organic Program:  Last week, USDA’s National Organic Program posted job announcements for an Associate Deputy Administrator and a Standards Division Director.  Both listings are open until January 11, 2010.  For more information, click here.


Secretary Vilsack at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference:  USDA Secretary Vilsack was among U.S. officials attending the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last week.  The Conference was officially the 15th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The purpose of the Conference was to advance negotiations on a binding agreement for climate change measures to replace the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012.

New USDA Reports:  In coordination with Vilsack’s participation at the Conference, USDA released a new report entitled Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems.  The report was prepared in cooperation with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  The report concludes that climate change is already affecting U.S. agriculture, land resources, water resources, and biodiversity, and will continue to do so.  The report identifies the effects climate is having and is expected to have on natural resources and ecosystems services in the U.S. over the next several decades.

Earlier in the week, another USDA report based on modeling work done at Texas A&M caused a stir by predicting a carbon offset program could result in 59 million acres of farmland, mostly pasture but including 22.5 million acres of cropland, being converted to forestry uses.  Realizing the political damage this report could do, Secretary Vilsack cautioned that the study did not fully account for the details of climate legislation which would be quite favorable to agriculture.

Vilsack Speech:  While in Copenhagen, Vilsack spoke at Agricultural and Rural Development Day, an event with more than 300 policy makers and other leaders from the agricultural and climate change scientific community.  The event was intended to assemble a plan for incorporating agriculture into a post-Copenhagen climate agenda.

In his remarks, Vilsack flagged genetic engineering, precision agriculture, reduced and no-till farming, and cellulosic ethanol production as his preferred methods for reducing GHG emissions and helping farmers adapt to climate change.

Dairy Digester Agreement
:  Vilsack’s presentation was followed a few days later by the announcement that USDA had entered into an agreement with Dairy Management Inc. under which USDA will conduct research initiatives, allow “implementation flexibility,” and enhance marketing efforts of anaerobic digesters to dairy producers.  USDA hopes to reduce dairy producer emissions by 25 percent by 2020.  Currently, about 2 percent of dairy producers use manure digesters in their operations.  Through the agreement, USDA and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy will increase the number of anaerobic digesters supported by USDA programs.  Beyond promoting the digesters, the agreement will encourage research, and development of new technologies to help dairies reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Global Research Alliance:  On Wednesday, December 16, USDA announced a Global Research Alliance to Combat Climate Change, a research collaboration with over 20 countries to address climate change.  USDA announced that it would increase its investment in climate change adaptation and mitigation research for agriculture by $90 million over the next four years, bringing the total USDA research dollars to addressing that priority to over $320 million in four years.

In response to the announcement, NSAC member Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy released this statement on research priorities for climate change.

Forest Emissions Deal:  On Wednesday, December 16, the US announced it will contribute $1 billion of a total $3.5 billion 3-year, 6-country deal to slow deforestation in developing countries.  Known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the aim of the new pact is to help finance more aggressive forestry management plans in the face of the continuing loss of 13 million hectares of forests each year.  USDA’s Forest Service will participate along with US AID.


New Manual on Crop Rotations and Organic Farming:  The Natural Resource, Agriculture, and Engineering Service with funding through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program released its new manual, Crop Rotations on Organic Farms:  A Planning Manual.  The manual has in-depth information about the applications and attributes of a wide range of crop rotations in different cropping systems and field conditions.  For ordering information or to download a free copy, click here.

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Last chance to show your appreciation for the timely news and critical analysis brought to you each week by NSAC staff in the shape of the Weekly Update!  Thank you and see you in 2010!

Categories: General Interest

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