Tell USDA to Make EQIP Work for Sustainable and Organic Farmers: As the Bush Administration left office, they issued an interim final rule to implement the 2008 Farm Bill changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The interim rule has very substantial problems that need to be fixed, and the public comment period ends March 16. An action alert with four major suggested talking points is available on the NSAC website. We urge all readers and member organizations to respond to the alert and to post the alert to your membership, lists, blog, etc. As always, feel free to adapt the alert to your own style and letterhead, or just forward it as is – your choice. Thanks for all you do to stimulate citizen action!
Obama Taps Kathleen Merrigan for #2 Spot at USDA: On Monday, we were delighted to learn that President Obama is nominating Kathleen A. Merrigan for USDA Deputy Secretary, the number two position at the agency. Kathleen is a longtime champion of sustainable agriculture. From 1987 to 1992, she was a staff member on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, working for Chairman Patrick Leahy and drafting the National Organic Program legislation, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, and Biotechnology Risk Assessment Program, among others. She worked at the Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture from 1994 to 1999 and shared offices with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Kathleen is currently an Assistant Professor and Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.
FY 09 Agriculture Appropriations Close to Final: This week the House of Representatives passed the omnibus appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2009, with the Senate vote on tap for next week. The omnibus bill, which includes the annual agricultural spending bill plus eight other spending bills, passed in the House 245-178. The Senate vote is still a bit uncertain, even as the March 6 deadline looms. The continuing resolution that the government is currently operating under runs out at the end of the week.
While the House-Senate conference to settle differences between their respective bills was largely finished in December, it was not until this week that the outcomes became public information. A quick rundown on our key programs:
The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) feeding program received fully adequate funding for 2009, aided by the additional funding provided for it in the stimulus bill. The combined outcome ensures full benefits for the increasing caseload, while reducing pressure on the need to reduce spending for other critical programs.
No mandatory farm bill funding for conservation, rural development, organic, beginning farmers, specialty crops, or renewable energy was cut, with the sole exception of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP was cut by $270 million to $1.067 billion. But no cutbacks at all for beginning farmer programs, organic research, CSP, WRP, and other conservation programs, etc.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program received level funding at $19 million, as did the ATTRA program at $2.6 million and Organic Transition Research at $1.8 million. The National Organic Program received most of the increase requested by USDA with a $700,000 increase to $3.9 million.
The Value-Added Producer Grants program kept its $15 million in mandatory spending from the 2008 Farm Bill and received an additional $3.9 million in discretionary appropriations, for a total of $18.9 million. The Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) kept its $55 million in mandatory spending and received an additional $5 million in discretionary funding, for a total of $60 million.
Farm Service Agency farm loan funding for direct and guaranteed lending was all kept level at 2008 levels, despite the accelerating credit crisis. These funding levels are considerably lower than expected demand for loans. The stimulus bill did include $173 million in additional direct operating loan funding, which will provide some cushion, and FSA has the authority to move some of this funding to the farm ownership program, an authority likely to be used since farm ownership funding is under even more pressure than operating loans.
Obama Budget Framework Released: An unusual budget framework — sort of a sneak preview of the full budget request that will be delivered to Congress in early April — was released by the White House on Thursday, February 26. The hottest story in the agriculture portion of the preview was the President’s announcement that he would request legislation to deny direct payments under the farm commodity programs for any farm that grosses more than $500,000 a year and to re-impose a payment cap on loan deficiency payments and marketing loan gains to create a combined payment limit of $250,000 per person per year. The proposal was roundly criticized by many farm state legislators and commodity groups. NSAC took more of a wait and see approach, issuing a press release applauding the President for taking on the issue of subsidy reform but keeping our powder dry on the particulars until the details of the proposal are made public.
The President’s budget also calls for a $5.2 billion cut in crop insurance subsidies to farmers and crop insurance companies, the elimination of cotton storage payments, and a 20 percent cut in the Market Access Program that promotes US farm products overseas.
It is not at all clear that there will be a legislative vehicle for any of these farm bill changes to even be considered in the coming year. Normally changes like these would occur either in the farm bill reauthorization (currently scheduled for 2012) or in budget reconciliation legislation that Congress occasionally undertakes to cut government spending to reduce deficits. During the recession, when Congress is increasing spending to jump start the economy, it would be highly improbable for them to also pursue budget reconciliation.
Elsewhere in the four page USDA budget preview, the President calls for a $1 billion a year increase in mandatory funding for the Child Nutrition and WIC reauthorization legislation that Congress will be working on later this year.
The only USDA program that the President proposes to eliminate is the Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) program, a hold over from perennial Bush Administration proposals that have been rejected every year by Congress.
In one of the only specific funding proposals named in the brief 4-page presentation, the President proposes a doubling of funding for the budget line items that include the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program, Value-Added Producer Grants program, ATTRA program, Rural Coop Development Grants, and others. Our expectation is that most of this proposed increase will be for RMAP and VAPG, two NSAC priorities from the last farm bill. USDA Secretary Vilsack backed increases for both programs as part of the recently passed economic stimulus legislation, but Congress did not include that proposal in the final stimulus package. The exact distribution of the proposed added funding will be apparent once the full budget request is released in April.
Vilsack on Civil Rights: On February 21, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund’s Georgia Annual Farmers Conference in Albany, Georgia, the first farm group outside Washington he has addressed since being sworn in as Secretary on January 21. Vilsack used the speech to announce his intention to seek legislation to elevate the Assistant Secretary of Administration to the level of Under Secretary and to step up efforts to resolve ongoing charges of discrimination in USDA’s administration of its programs and in its hiring and promotion of staff.
Vilsack also briefly highlighted the importance of value-added production, opportunities for agriculture to contribute to reducing and sequestering carbon emissions, and WIC and food assistance programs in the stimulus package. He discussed the recently released agricultural census finding that mid-sized farms are continuing to disappear, and set out a variety of ways the overarching priorities of USDA – a safe, sufficient, sustainable, wholesome food supply; 21st century rural communities; and sound energy and climate change policies – will help guide the Department’s approach to maintaining and increasing the number of mid-sized farms.
Request for Proposals for Ecosystem Services Research and Decision Support Tools: This week a new request for applications was issued jointly by USDA and EPA as part of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to support research on the ecosystem services in agricultural settings, including both agroecosystems and ecosystems that are impacted by agriculture, with the goal of quantifying these services, identifying risks due to different stressors, and developing strategies to reduce negative environmental impacts while enhancing ecosystem services provided by working lands. Ecosystem services of interest will be related to climate change, water availability, reactive nitrogen, pests, weeds, invasive species, and soil and land degradation. Proposals for funding are due by May 26. Approximately $4.5 million will be available under this new, first time program.
Stimulus Package Provides for Floodplain Easements: The economic stimulus package recently enacted by the federal government includes $290 million for the Emergency Watershed Protection Program, of which $190 million is for floodplain easements. The Program is intended to assist groups affected by floods, fires, windstorms, and other natural disasters, and is administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Public and private landowners are eligible for assistance, but must be sponsored by a public agency of state, county or city government, or a special district or tribal government. Information on how to apply is available on the NRCS website.
Projects funded under the program have worked to relieve hazards in a wide variety of ways, including purchasing floodplain easements. Floodplain easements protect and maintain the ecological functions of the floodplain, and protect lives and property, while removing land from production that otherwise are often repeat recipients of disaster aid. NRCS may purchase easements on any floodplains that have been impaired within the last 12 months or that have a history of repeated flooding. Landowner applications for the program currently exceed NRCS’s available funding under the stimulus bill, so new applicants probably have only a small chance of getting in on the stimulus money. Application forms and other information on the floodplain easement program are available here.
EPA Farm, Ranch & Rural Communities Advisory Committee Meeting: On Monday and Tuesday, NSAC staffer Martha Noble participated in the EPA Farm, Ranch & Rural Communities Advisory Committee meeting in Washington, DC. EPA staff presented information on development of a greenhouse gas emission life cycle analysis for renewable fuels required by the Renewable Fuels Standard provision of the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007. A member of the EPA Science Advisory Board’s Panel on Reactive Nitrogen provided an overview of the Panel’s draft report on integrative nitrogen. The Committee approved recommendations to EPA, including one asking EPA to provide CAFO operators with more detailed information on measures needed to comply with the Clean Water Act CAFO regulations.
Clean Water Network Meeting: This week, NSAC staffer Martha Noble attended the Clean Water Network’s Clean Water Week meeting in Washington, DC. About 90 people from over thirty states attended the meeting. Highlights included keynote speaker Maud Barlow with the Council of Canadians speaking about the harms to society and the environment from privatization of water resources. The Network’s Work Groups met to approve draft work plans for the coming year. Martha serves as a Vice-President of the Clean Water Network and Co-Chair of the Network’s Feedlot Work Group. Contact Martha if you have questions about the Clean Water Network or the Feedlot Work Group.