NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update February 6, 2009

February 7, 2009


Senate Continues Economic Recovery Bill Debate:  As we go to press, the Senate is still debating the economic recovery or stimulus bill.  Many major amendments to the bill have been and will be debated, none of which are getting more attention than the efforts of a handful of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to strip the bill of tens of billions of dollars worth of spending.  The emerging amendment will likely include some reductions to USDA-related items in the underlying bill, including the over $200 million in the bill to modernize Farm Service Agency computer systems and the $100 million for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.  Some form of the amendment appears likely to pass, though details change by the minute.

All three amendments that we alerted readers on earlier this week are still in the queue for amendments that could still be considered before the vote on final passage.  Those amendments would provide funding for the rural microenterprise program and for farm bill energy programs for new generation bioenergy and prioritize the use of farm loan funds already in the bill.

The final vote could happen late Friday night or could not happen until the weekend.  We will provide readers a brief update on final action early next week.

Get Ready for Action! Almost as soon as the Senate passes the economic recovery bill, a conference committee will get underway to work out the substantial differences between the House and Senate bills.  We will urge every one of our members and supporters to engage in the effort to get the best possible bill.

Only the Senate bill, for instance, has significant funding for the Women, Infants and Children feeding program.  While still not as much WIC funding as is actually needed, it is vital that the conference agree to at least the Senate level, and preferably more.  The House bill also lacks critically needed funding for direct and guaranteed farm operating and ownership loans.  If any of the amendments we are supporting on the Senate floor are passed, there will be additional issues of major importance.

The action will need to be fast.  Congress intends to finish the bill and send it to the President by the end of next week.  Get ready to act!  We will send you an alert very early next week, and urge you to respond and to send it to your action lists.

EQIP Guidance Requested:  NSAC this week urged USDA to take immediate steps to issue additional guidance concerning implementation of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in 2009.  In a letter to Secretary Vilsack, we indicated that major problems with the Interim Final Rule for EQIP issued by the Bush Administration need to be corrected in the final rule for the program, but that in the meantime guidance needs to be developed to clarify the interim rule.  The letter highlights six issues – new priorities for energy conservation, organic farming, forest management, and soil quality; a moratorium on payment limitation waivers; environmental restrictions on assistance for animal waste storage and treatment; full implementation of the organic conversion assistance subprogram; selection of priority resource concerns; and financial assistance for comprehensive conservation planning.  For a copy of the letter, email Mark Hertel.  mhertel@sustainableagriculturecoalition.org

Put Sustainability at the Center of NIFA:  On Friday, February 6, NSAC submitted very brief stakeholder comments to UDSA on the implementation of the new National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the successor agency to what is known today as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service.  We urged that sustainability be the central organizing principle and also reminded the agency of the legal requirement that competitive and special research grants funded by CSREES (soon to be NIFA) must emphasis the development of sustainable agriculture. 


USDA Announces Planting Flexibility Pilot Project:  On Tuesday, February 3, USDA announced a new Planting Transferability Pilot Project which implements a 2008 Farm Bill provision to allow limited acreage of specific processed fruits and vegetables to be planted on acreage enrolled in farm commodity support programs.  The pilot program is limited to farmers in IL, IN, IA, MI, MN, OH and WI, limited to specific fruits and vegetables needed by food processing companies, and limited to a specific number of acres that varies by state.  Base acres on a farm will be temporarily reduced each year on an acre-for-acre basis, for each base acre planted with an approved fruit or vegetable on that farm.  Farmers must agree to produce the crop as part of a program of crop rotation on the farm to achieve agronomic, pest and disease management benefits.  Sign-up for the Pilot Project is open until March 2, 2009 at local Farm Service Agency offices.  More information about the Pilot Project is available in a USDA press release.  (Note: During consideration of the 2008 Farm Bill, NSAC proposed a provision allowing farmers enrolled in the commodity programs the option of using up to 25 acres for fresh fruits and vegetables for the local market, but the proposal was beaten back by the farm bill alliance organized by the specialty crop industry.)

Senators Letter to Vilsack on COOL Regulation Revision:  On Tuesday, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Jon Tester (D-MT) delivered a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack asking that USDA revise the Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (mCOOL) regulation before it takes effect on March 16.  The Senators specifically objected to a provision in the rule allowing meatpackers to label meat exclusively from U.S. sources as meat of multi-country origin, if the meat was processed in the plant on the same day as meat from foreign sources.  According to a report in Congress Daily, the provision was added by the Bush Administration after negotiations with the Canadian government over an action against mCOOL filed by Canada in the World Trade Organization.

Specialty Crop Research Initiative RFA Released:  USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) is requesting applications for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) for fiscal year 2009.  CSREES estimates that $47.3 million in grant funds will be available in FY 2009 for projects that address critical United States specialty crop issues and priorities.

CSREES has identified the following five high priority research areas for FY 09:

  • plant breeding, genetics, and genomics to improve crop characteristics;
  • efforts to identify and address threats from pests and diseases, including threats to specialty crop pollinators;
  • efforts to improve production efficiency, productivity, and profitability over the long term (including specialty crop policy and marketing);
  • new innovations and technology, including improved mechanization and technologies that delay or inhibit ripening; and
  • methods to prevent, detect, monitor, control, and respond to potential food safety hazards in the production and processing of specialty crops, including fresh produce.

A full list of research topics and areas can be found in the RFA.  Letters of Intent are due by March 2, 2009 and final applications are due April 15, 2009.

2007 Census of Agriculture:  USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released its 2007 Census of Agriculture on Wednesday, February 4, 2009.  Census results are available online.

Several of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s comments at the release were encouraging and hopefully highlight agricultural areas that will be of particular interest to the new administration.  Vilsack said he considered it a “hopeful” development that the number of farms in the United States has grown by 4% since the previous Census of Agriculture in 2002.  Although numbers of small farms and very large farms increased, Vilsack expressed “deep concern” that the number of mid-sized farms continues to decrease.  He also said he believes that the overall number of farms has grown largely as a result of USDA policies that promote organic agriculture and conservation practices.

Vilsack said he is “heartened” that an increasing number of minority and socially disadvantaged farmers are benefiting from economic opportunities in rural America, and that USDA must continue to work to ensure that every socially disadvantaged farmer is aware of assistance that USDA can provide.  The 2007 Census shows a 30% increase in the number of women farm-operators, a 10% increase in the number of Hispanic farm-operators, and smaller increases in numbers of Native American, Asian, and Black farm-operators.


Bison Abuse:  On Friday, February 6, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) called on USDA to investigate media reports of animal neglect and abuse at a bison ranch in North Dakota owned by a millionaire real estate developer from Florida who also is a multi-million dollar recipient of farm commodity payments on farmland he owns in several Midwestern states.  Press reports say the hundreds of bison have escaped from the ranch owned by Maurice Wilder of Clearwater, Florida and show signs of starvation and illness.  Dorgan asked USDA to have the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service investigate the situation.

Organic Breeding Conference in August:  The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and Seeds of Change are partnering to host the first IFOAM conference on Organic Animal and Plant Breeding – Breeding Diversity.  The Conference will be held in Santa Fe, New Mexico on August 25-28, 2009.  Registration is now open and IFOAM is also inviting farmers and scientists, traders and certifiers, gardeners and animal breeders, professionals and dedicated hobby breeders to submit papers for the conference by March 1, 2009.  More information on the conference, Call for Papers, and how to register can be found here.

First National Ag Pollinators Forum:  The Native Pollinator in Agriculture Work Group will be holding their first national meeting on February 24-25, 2009 at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, VA just prior to the 85th annual Agriculture Outlook Forum on February 26-27.  The First National Ag Pollinators Forum will include discussion on opportunities and benefits of native pollinators, the latest developments on the colony collapse disorder, habitat establishment and proper pesticide use, as well as the launch of a national ag pollinator alliance.  For more information, visit here.

Categories: General Interest

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