NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – Fall Legislative Preview

September 8, 2009


Act Now to Promote a Strong Conservation Stewardship Program! Sustainable and organic farming advocates have an important – but short – opportunity to help shape the implementation of the new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), a working lands conservation program that provides payments to farmers for maintaining existing conservation practices and for adopting new ones.   USDA has requested comments on the administrative rules that will govern implementation of the new CSP.   The deadline for submitting comments is September 28th.

USDA needs to hear our views.  An abundance of comments from sustainable agriculture advocates will ensure that the new CSP recognizes and rewards the multiple environmental benefits of sustainable and organic agriculture.   An action alert with talking points and instructions for submitting comments is posted here.


CSP CMT Net Demonstration:  The Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) that will be filled out by all farmers signing up for the 2009 version of Conservation Stewardship Program during the month of October will be used to determine eligibility, ranking, and payments, and is thus the central enrollment feature of the new stewardship program.

A net conference to help organizations and service providers learn more about the CMT is being held on Thursday, September 10, starting at 1:30 p.m. and ending at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

To call in, use this toll free number:  888-946-6309.  To join the demonstration online go here.  The conference number is PW8927472 and the audience passcode is “CSP”.

Participants can join the event directly at: https://www.mymeetings.com/nc/join.php?i=PW8927472&p=CSP&t=c

Replays will be available for 30 days.  To access the Net replays of this call after September 10 visit this site.


Congress Returns to a Full Plate:  Congress returns today from its annual August recess with a crowded agenda, starting with President Obama’s Wednesday night address to a joint session of the House and Senate on health care legislation.  In addition to health care, the crowded docket of potential legislative items for the fall includes appropriations, climate change, food safety, child nutrition act reauthorization, financial regulatory reform, student loan reform, estate tax revisions, unemployment benefits extension, and more.

Congressional Ratings — While Congress was gone, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a national survey that concluded Congress’ approval rating has fallen to its lowest level in the 24 years the survey has been taken.  Fifty-two percent of those surveyed rated Congress unfavorably.  In general, Democrats fared better in the poll than did Republicans on a wide range of key issues, though they were in a near dead heat in terms of which party to support in the mid-term elections.

Appropriations — During recess, the staffs of the House and Senate agriculture appropriations subcommittees have started the work of reconciling the House and Senate agriculture spending bills for 2010.  That effort will continue this week and perhaps next.  Expectations are still running fairly high that the Members will approve a conference report and both houses will pass a final agricultural spending bill prior to the start of the new fiscal year on October 1.

The agriculture bill is one of twelve annual spending measures.  While the House has passed all of its bill, the Senate, which always acts second on appropriations, still has eight bills to go.  It is very unlikely it will get to all eight, though Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has commented he hopes to finish at least four more.  All bills not finished and sent to the President by October 1 will need to be part of a continuing resolution that will keep the government operating until final bills can be approved.

Hanging in the balance on the agriculture bill is increased spending for rural economic development programs, including Rural Micro-enterprise Assistance, Value-Added Producer Grants, and Rural Coop Development Grants, in the Senate version, increased competitive grant research funding (Organic Transitions in the House, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative in the Senate), and, in both bills, funding to increase the value of fruit and vegetable vouchers in the WIC program.

Climate Change — The timing for initial Senate consideration of climate change legislation has changed.  When Congress left for recess the plan was for Environment and Public Works (EPW) Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to introduce draft legislation upon return and proceed to committee markup.  Under a timetable set by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), all other committees, including Agriculture, with jurisdiction over parts of the bill were to report out their legislation by September 28.

Last week, however, Boxer and her co-sponsor, John Kerry (D-MA), announced that the draft bill will not be ready until later in the month.  Reid has not yet announced a new deadline for the other committees to complete action.

The House passed its version of the climate bill in June.  NSAC is finalizing proposed revisions to the agricultural sections of the House bill to share with the EPW and Agriculture Committees.

The White House and congressional Democratic leadership had intended for Congress to approve of a climate bill prior to the start of global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December.  That target now seems unlikely to be met.

Meanwhile, keeping pressure on Congress to act, the EPA last week sent draft rules to impose caps on greenhouse gas emissions via the Clean Air Act to the White House to review.  While regulating large industrial sources of greenhouse gas emissions is possible under the Clean Air law, if the Administration were to propose them Congress could act to block or weaken the rules.

While Congress was out of town, a poll was taken for the Center for American Progress of likely 2010 voters in 16 states that are home to key swing Senate votes on the climate bill.  In response to questions about the House passed bill, 63 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly supported the measure versus 30 percent who opposed it.  Some 60 percent of those polled said they would be more inclined to vote for a candidate who supported climate legislation versus 26 percent who said they would be less inclined.

The poll was conducted in Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Food Safety — As with climate change, the House has passed its version of a food safety bill with the Senate due to act this fall.  The main vehicle in the Senate will likely be S. 510 introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Judd Gregg (R-NH).  The bill is referred to the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which also has its hands full with health care.  Though HELP passed its version of a health care bill, the members and staff will nonetheless be very involved with working on a final overall Senate bill.  Food safety is likely to be taken up around the edges of the health care debate, whenever time allows.

NSAC is in the process of finalizing recommendations for amending S. 510 to take into account the interests of family farms, sustainable and organic farming systems, local and regional food systems, and conservation and the environment.  Those recommendations will be shared with the HELP and Agriculture Committees.

Child Nutrition — As regular readers will recall, this is the year for Congress to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, setting policy and funding for the school feeding programs and setting policy for the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) feeding program.  It now appears unlikely the bill will be taken up this fall, primarily due to lack of agreement on where the funding would come from to improve the nutritional quality of school feeding programs.  As part of the reauthorization effort, NSAC and allied groups are trying to obtain a commitment from Congress and the Administration to fund Farm to School programs across the country.

Staff for the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Agriculture Committee, the two committees with jurisdiction over the bill, now predict Congress will pass a short term extension of existing law so that the committees can take up the bills next spring.  Whether funding offsets will be clearer next year remains to be seen, though the hope would be that next year’s congressional budget resolution will help clarify the situation.  In the meantime, it is still possible that the committees would begin preliminary work on the bills yet this year.


Know Your Farmer Week is Coming! Last week’s Update reported on USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s memo promoting three USDA Rural Development programs and explaining how they can be used to build sustainable local and regional food systems.  The momentum continues next week when she is expected to begin USDA’s new Department-wide initiative to explain its role to consumers and increase their understanding and connection with the farmers and ranchers that provide our food.

Beginning on Monday, September 14 there will be events each day that concentrate successively on rural revitalization, farm to institution programs, healthy eating and farmers markets.  A new USDA website to accompany the national dialogue will go online by the end of the week.

Staff in all USDA mission areas have been meeting for several months to find ways to better integrate their efforts and increase emphasis on supporting sustainable regional food systems.

NIFA News? As stipulated by the 2008 Farm Bill, on October 1 USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) becomes the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA).  We expect news about the appointment of a NIFA Director as well as the proposed organization of the new agency, including the possibility of sub-institutes, this week or next.  Stay tuned!


Beginning Farmer and Organic Production CRP Transition Option in Jeopardy:  Last week we reported that USDA’s Farm Service Agency is holding nine public listening sessions to solicit comments on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) it will prepare for the program.  The EIS must be completed before the agency issues a rule to enact the changes to the CRP Congress made in the 2008 Farm Bill.  At the current pace, the farm bill changes will not be made until 2011, the year before the current farm bill expires.

Unfortunately, upon further review, we have now discovered the EIS may now include a review of the CRP transition option, a congressional initiative to try to put land that is leaving the CRP upon contract expiration into the hands of beginning farmers and minority farmers, including those who want to transition to organic production systems.  Placing land that has leaving the program into an environmental review of land in the program seems contradictory.  With up to 7 million acres of CRP land possibly leaving the program in 2009 and 2010, the lack of a rule to implement the transition option would be an enormous lost opportunity.  Hopefully the Obama Administration will respond quickly and get the transition option moving in time for this year’s contract expirations.

The nine public CRP meetings being held this fall are in Spokane, WA (9/15), Great Falls, MT (9/21), Moorhead, MN (9/21), Manhattan, KS (9/23), Springfield, IL (9/25), Oklahoma City, OK (9/29), Clovis, NM (10/1), Albany, GA (10/6), and Harrisburg, PA (10/8).  Times, locations and contact information for each of these sessions are available here.

Reminder – Conservation Practice Standard Comment Period Extended:  USDA has extended the comment deadline on Conservation Practice Standards to September 14.  Comments can be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov or emailed to: nrcscpta2008@wdc.usda.gov.  Comments were previously submitted by NSAC.

Leafy Green Marketing Agreement Hearing Dates Set:  USDA announced on Thursday, September 3 that the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will hold seven public hearings in September and October to hear public comments on a proposed national leafy green marketing agreement.  View the full Federal Register announcement here.

The hearings are being held in response to a June request to consider a national marketing agreement submitted by produce industry representatives.  The request stems from the 2006 E. coli outbreak linked to bagged spinach and the subsequent adoption of a California marketing agreement for handlers of leafy greens.  Though voluntary, handlers representing 99 percent of leafy green marketing volume signed on to the California agreement  The agreement is widely seen as problematic for small and mid-sized farms, for diversified and organic producers, and for wildlife and biodiversity.

USDA added hearing sites in response to an NSAC and National Organic Coalition request to ensure that they hear from a more diverse cross section of vegetable producers.  The hearing schedule is:

  • September 22 – 24 — Monterey, CA
  • September 30 – October 1 — Jacksonville, FL
  • October 6 — Columbus, OH
  • October 8 — Denver, CO
  • October 14 – 15 — Yuma, AZ
  • October 20 — Syracuse, NY
  • October 22 — Charlotte, NC

Rules Finalized for Research and Extension Programs:  On Friday, September 4, the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service issued final rules in the Federal Register on general administrative procedures for all of its competitive grants programs and also non-competitive programs other than formula funds.  Until now, many research and extension programs have not had formal rules, while those that did varied program to program.  The new effort creates a core of basic rules for all the programs, which in turn will be supplemented with program-specific rules.

The new general rules will apply to most of CSREES’ programs, including the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, Community Food Grants, and many others.

In producing the final rule, CSREES did not accept any of the recommendations made on the interim final rule by NSAC.  Though our recommendations were of a relatively minor nature, it was nonetheless disconcerting to find that none of them were adopted and no explanation was provided.

Beginning Farmer Program Rule and Request for Comments:  Also on Friday, September 4, CSREES issued an interim final rule pertaining to the administration of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  The rules are in addition to the general administrative rules for competitive and non-competitive grants (see story above).

Public comments are being accepted through November 3.  NSAC will post a review of the rule and suggested comments in a future edition of the Weekly Update.  In particular, we will focus on elaborating and expanding on the project review criteria listed in statute and repeated in the interim rule.

Beginning Farmer Advisory Committee Nominations Open:  On Thursday, September 3, USDA’s Farm Service Agency issued a Federal Register notice inviting public nominations for the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers.  The Committee advises the Secretary of Agriculture on policy to create new farming and ranching opportunities.  The statutory creation of the committee was the result of Sustainable Agriculture Coalition advocacy in the early 1990s.  NSAC and NSAC member organization staff has served on the committee at various times during its existence.

Nominations for new 2-year terms must be received by FSA by October 5.  Openings are expected for slots reserved for farmers and ranchers, State beginning farmer program staff, commercial lenders, and extension.  It is possible that a slot may also open for a non-governmental organization, depending on how many existing committee members who have not reached the maximum of three terms decide to reapply.

Rural Energy for America Program Grants:  On Wednesday, September 2, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced another $13 million in Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) loan and grant awards.  REAP funds, which went to 233 projects in 38 states, may be used for renewable energy systems, energy efficiency improvements, feasibility studies and energy audits.  The complete list of awards can be found here.

More Rural Development State Directors Named:  On Friday, September 4, the Administration announced three more state rural development director appointments, this time for California, Louisiana, and Delware/Maryalnd.  Of note, the new California director is Glenda Humiston who served as USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment during the latter part of the Clinton Administration, recently finished her doctorate and a dissertation on “Sustainable Agriculture as U.S. Farm Policy: Opportunities and Threats to Reform.”


Restarting Doha Talks:  On Friday, September 4, 30 trade ministers meeting in New Delhi, India agreed to resume world trade treaty talks.  Preliminary discussions are to start in Geneva next week.  The Doha Round of trade talks are now in their eighth year.  The revived talks will start from the draft negotiating texts from December 2008, issued just before talks collapsed.  There is little indication as yet that anything significant has changed since the collapse, though the restart will test the Obama Administration’s approach to trade deals.


Old McDonald is Online: A new study by Nicholson Kovac, Inc., Agriculture New Media Usage Study provides insight into new media usage among corn and soybean growers.  According to Chris Clayton, who writes and blogs for the agriculture journal DTN, the study finds that 47 percent of farmers [the 230 corn and soybean farmers interviewed] spend five hours or more online each week and 23 percent spend 10 hours or more.  The study also showed that farmers are texting and sharing photos online than ever before.

Categories: General Interest

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