NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – December 19, 2008

December 20, 2008


Obama Names Vilsack Secretary of Agriculture: On Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama officially named former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as the incoming Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack, who previously served two terms as the governor of Iowa, has worked most recently as a lawyer in Des Moines since ending his brief 2008 presidential bid in 2007. This fall he served as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and worked for the Iowa State Biosafety Institute.

In making the nomination, Obama indicated his intent “that the policies being shaped at the Departments of Agriculture and Interior are designed to serve not big agribusiness or Washington influence-peddlers, but family farmers and the American people.” During the press briefing, Vilsack mentioned the importance of nutrition and is expected to work with fellow Iowan, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, on the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act this year. As governor, Vilsack was a strong supporter of conservation programs (and an early champion of the Conservation Stewardship Program) and alternative energy, including ethanol and wind. In recent interviews he has mentioned the need for the enforcement of payment limitations and livestock market reform.

John Crabtree from SAC member group Center for Rural Affairs interviewed Vilsack in mid- November about a few of these issues. The blog post is available here.

SAC Transmits Briefing Papers to Obama Transition Team: SAC this week sent the presidential transition team for USDA its comprehensive position briefing papers. The recommendations are all keyed to promises made in the President-elect’s agricultural platform statement. In addition, ideas for the stimulus bill are also included. We will also be forwarding these briefing papers to the Secretary-nominee. Anyone wishing to see a full set of the papers should email SAC’s policy director Ferd Hoefner at fhoefner@sustainableagriculturecoalition.org and write ‘transition papers” in the subject line.

Pace Quickens on Stimulus Talks: President-elect Obama is preparing to outline his proposed economic stimulus package over the course of the coming two week holiday period. Early details began to trickle out this week, including the headline grabber that the proposed bill may now carry a $850 billion price tag. Key congressional chairman are beginning to put their own mark on the evolving bill, putting forth trial balloon numbers and packages.

The bill is expected to include major sections on infrastructure, energy, health care, education, aid to states, tax cuts, and safety net programs including feeding programs. While the goal of the congressional leadership remains to have the bill finished by the inauguration on January 20, the shear size and complexity of the bill, and the push by major congressional committees to use “regular order” requiring committee mark-ups to precede floor consideration, almost certainly makes that target date a bit optimistic.

Within the feeding program section of the stimulus bill, major attention continues to focus on improving food stamp benefits that have been eroding as food prices have increased. A smaller price tag item, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) feeding program, remains in the mix, with the outcome holding enormous influence over whether or not the still pending FY 2009 agricultural appropriations bill will need to dip into mandatory farm bill spending for conservation, renewable energy, specialty crops, and aid to organic and beginning farmers.

Speaking of agricultural appropriations — this week House and Senate staff essentially wrapped up the final draft of the conference agreement on the agricultural appropriations bill for FY 2009. The Members will finalize and vote on the conference agreement when they return in January. Until then, the final numbers will be kept under wraps.


Payment Limitation Interim Final Rule: Late Friday afternoon, USDA issued a press release to say that next week the Federal Register will publish in interim final rule for commodity program payment limitation and adjusted gross income (AGI) eligibility criteria.

On the key question of whether the Bush Administration would close on of the biggest loopholes that allow mega farming operations to collect multiple times the nominal payment limitation, the jury is out pending the actual publication of the rule. However, based on a careful reading of the press release, it would appear that the “actively engaged in farming” rules have either been left essentially the same, or, quite possibly, even further weakened.

We will have more to say in the next issue of the Weekly Update, after the rule is actually published. For now we have two things to say. First, the old and bad habit of USDA issuing late Friday press releases about rules it actually hasn’t issued yet for stories it wants buried is getting very old and is indeed bad government, not good government. Second, it appears SAC will likely be forced to petition the new Administration to issue a revised interim final rule to actually close the loophole, as President-elect Obama said he would in his agricultural platform.

Value-Added and Rural Development Rule Criticized: On Monday, SAC submitted comments to USDA’s Rural Development mission area blasting a proposed rule that largely ignored the 2008 Farm Bill changes to the Value-Added Producer Grants program related to small and medium-sized farms, beginning and minority farmers, local food, and mid-tier value chains. SAC was also critical of the proposed move to lump disparate rural programs together in a complex and potentially confusing “common platform.” We will be requesting the new Administration to substantially rewrite the rule.

Interim Rule on B&I Local Food Loans: On Wednesday, just two days after the end of the comment period on the proposed rule that included VAPG, USDA’s Rural Development area published an interim final rule for another “common platform,” this one for various guaranteed loan programs. We are still reviewing the common features part of the rulemaking.

In addition, though, the interim rule includes specific rules for the new local and regional food enterprise loans that are part of the Business and Industry (B&I) loan program. SAC worked for this new program in the 2008 Farm Bill. Our initial review of the language is positive. It appears to fully incorporate the farm bill provisions, including the priority for underserved areas, and accurately reflects the new statutory definition of local foods as being in state or within 400 miles.

Organic Fruits and Vegetables OK under WIC: USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service recently sent out an email to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) State agencies to clarify that federal regulations revising the WIC food packages do not authorize State agencies to disallow organic fruits and vegetables purchased with the cash-value voucher. States have had discretion on whether or not they will allow the purchase of organic products under WIC, and many of them have recently used this discretion to implement a “lowest cost rule” or an outright ban on purchases of organic products. State agencies will continue to have the authority to disallow organic forms of WIC-eligible foods provided via the regular WIC food instrument, e.g., milk, eggs, peanut butter, etc. SAC is working with member and partner organizations to review this authority and explore more reasonable alternatives.

AFRI FY 09 Program Announcement Now Available: A detailed program announcement reflecting what the eventual FY 2009 Request for Applications (RFA) for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) — [the successor to the National Research Initiative and the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems — will likely consist of was posted on the CSREES website on Thursday. A planned upgrade of the grants.gov website has forced USDA to delay the release of the official RFA until late January 2009, but the program announcement has more than enough information to begin fashioning proposals. Happily, many of the priorities SAC worked to ensure were included in the new program’s RFA have been reflected in the program announcement to one degree or another, including:

Integrated Proposals — After USDA lawyers maintained that the interpretation of the legislative language precluded spending AFRI money on integrated proposals and CSREES considered issuing a separate call for integrated proposals, SAC received a commitment from the CSREES Administrator to issue one call for proposals that included integrated proposals. We are happy to report that CSREES has followed through on its commitment.

Priority Programs — The Managed Ecosystems and Agricultural Prosperity for Small and Medium Sized Farms national programs that SAC has long advocated for have been carried over, each with close to $5 million in potential grant awards.

Classical Plant and Animal Breeding Projects – Classical (conventional) plant breeding projects will be fundable under the Plant Biology and Environmental Stress program, Plant Genome, Genetics, and Breeding program, and the Plant Breeding and Education program, and classical animal breeding under the Animal Genome, Genetics, and Breeding program. SAC worked to get conventional plant and animal breeding added as a new legislative priority and to make sure that it was reflected in the RFA. We still want to see both as a separate national program, as well as reflected in other programs, in future years.

The option for a 10-year grant to support the long-term nature of classical plant and animal breeding that SAC advocated for will not be available for these programs or any others in FY 09, but a proof of concept project on sustainable agroecosystems is being solicited as a trial 10-year grant.

Antibiotics — Projects related to antibiotic use in livestock production are being solicited through the Water and Watersheds national program.

Rural Entrepreneurship — The Rural Development national program contains the new rural entrepreneurship priority SAC worked to get included in the AFRI authorizing language, but the Rural Development program will not be funded this year and will instead be funded in alternating years starting in FY 10. We will continue to advocate for an annual stand alone program.

Approximate funding allocations for each national program under AFRI are noted in the program announcement, but AFRI is fully dependent upon the annual appropriations process. The outcome of the FY 2009 appropriations process will ultimately determine how much is available for AFRI. CSREES has projected about $190 million will be available for FY 09, which is close to the combined amount of mandatory funding NRI and IFAFS received in FY 08. In reality, we expect the final appropriations level to be about $200 million.

Market-Based Conservation Plan Announced: On Thursday, USDA Secretary Ed Schafer announced he will establish an Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets to provide administrative and technical help in developing tools and guidelines to create markets for clear water and air, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage, with initial emphasis on the latter. The new office will also support an interagency Conservation and Land Management Environmental Services Board (with the Departments of Interior, Energy, Commerce, Transportation, and Defense as well as the EPA) and help develop ways to assess the value of environmental goods and services. The office is on a fast track to open just a week prior to the end of the Bush Administration and will be headed by current Associate Chief of the US Forest Service Sally Collins.

Market-based trading has become quite the rage, and USDA has been increasing attention in this area for some time. The 2008 Farm Bill’s conservation title requires USDA to help farmers, ranchers, and forest owners participate in “emerging” environmental services markets, starting with carbon trading. The provision was a priority for Environmental Defense Fund and American Farmland Trust among others.

RMA Outreach Grant RFA Released: As you may have read on our blog on Monday, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) issued a Request for Applications (RFA) for the Community Outreach and Assistance Partnership Program. About $3.4 million is available for collaborative outreach, assistance, and training projects on risk management solutions for socially disadvantaged, limited resource, or traditionally underserved farmers and ranchers who produce priority commodities.

Applications will be given higher points if they demonstrate that their projects will: specifically incorporate training on the benefits and implementation of the Adjusted Gross Revenue Lite (AGR–LITE) insurance coverage plan, promote energy alternatives for small farmers and ranchers, or partner with organizations that can meet the needs of limited resources, minority, or beginning farmers and ranchers.

Applications for this competitive awards program are due by February 13, 2009 at 5:00 pm (EST) and all awards and partnership agreements will be completed by September 30, 2009. For more information on eligible commodities, applications, and awards, please see the complete edocket. You can also visit the Partnership and Cooperative Agreements webpage.


Final Rule Exempts CAFOs from Reporting Requirements: On Thursday, at the urging of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) sector, EPA issued a final rule exempting hazardous air emissions produced by on-farm animal waste from the reporting requirements of the Comprehensive, Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). The final rule also exempts reporting of hazardous air emissions under the Emergency Planning Community-Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) from on-farm animal waste produced by small and mid-sized CAFOs (large-scale CAFOs—defined in the Clean Water Act CAFO regulations as those with more than 1000 animal units—are still required to report under EPCRA).

Over the last year the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, working with a group of environmental organizations, successfully convinced EPA that large CAFOs should not be exempted from reporting hazardous air emissions to state and local authorities under EPCRA. But in this new final rule EPA continues to wash its hands of its responsibility to protect the public health of farmers, ranchers, other rural residents and rural communities under CERCLA. The primary hazardous air emissions from CAFO waste are ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, with nitrogen oxide and volatile organic chemicals also released.

New Study Links Livestock Concentration to Infant Mortality: As EPA continues to sit on its hands and avoid effective control of CAFO air pollutants, a recent study has drawn a strong correlation between the concentration of industrial livestock production and infant mortality rates. The study, conducted by Wellesley College Professor Stacy Sneeringer, found that a 100,000 animal unit increase in a county corresponds to 123 more deaths of infants in one year per 100,000 births, and 100 more deaths of infants within twenty-eight days per 100,000 births. A doubling of production induces a 7.4% increase in infant mortality. In practical terms, counties with increases in animal units between 1982 and 1997 experienced on average a 35% rise in animal units. This corresponds to a 2.8% increase in infant mortality in these counties, or an additional 3,500 infant deaths.

Sneeringer flags increased air pollution as the likely mechanism by which the adverse effect on infant mortality operates. She recommends that careful monitoring of groundwater and air pollutants near livestock farms will be necessary to form an accurate picture of their effect on public health. In addition, the author recommends that large-scale livestock operations be regulated under the Clean Air Act. She also emphasizes that existing air and water quality data from livestock operations are poorly suited to protect public health and that resources should be used to improve data quality.

The article entitled Does Animal Feeding Operation Pollution Hurt Public Health? A National Longitudinal Study of Health Externalities Identified by Geographic Shifts in Livestock Production, will be published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. An abstract is posted on the web at http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/120751033/abstract.


Report Recommends New Nutrient Initiative for MS River: Last week, the National Research Council issued a report recommending that USDA and EPA jointly establish a Nutrient Control Implementation Initiative (NCII) to learn more about the effectiveness of actions meant to improve water quality throughout the Mississippi River basin and into the northern Gulf of Mexico. The report includes recommendations on advancing the larger process of allocating nutrient loading caps — which entails delegating responsibilities for reducing nutrient pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus across the basin. In addition, the report recommends that the two agencies jointly establish a Mississippi River Basin Water Quality Center to administer the Initiative and to conduct related water-quality monitoring and research. Copies of the report Nutrient Control Actions for Improving Water Quality in the Mississippi River Basin and Northern Gulf of Mexico are available from the National Academies Press.

Categories: General Interest

One response to “Weekly Update – December 19, 2008”

  1. Jim Worstell says:

    Since when is USDA concerned with the size of shears? I thought it was still up to the individual sheep shearer to select the size of his shears. Please enlighten me

    . . . While the goal of the congressional leadership remains to have the bill finished by the inauguration on January 20, the shear size and complexity of the bill . . .

    Also, have dates been totally finalized for the March meeting?
    Van and I are planning to come and would like to get some cheep fares.