NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – June 1-5, 2009

June 8, 2009


Ann Wright Named Deputy Undersecretary: We are enormously happy and proud to report that Ann Wright, former Sustainable Agriculture Coalition advocate, was named this week by USDA Secretary Vilsack as Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs (MRP). MRP oversees the Agricultural Marketing Service, Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, and Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration.

Until last week, Wright served as senior policy advisor on agriculture for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Prior to her work at SAC, Wright was a legislative assistant on agriculture for Senators Paul Simon (D-IL) and Paul Wellstone (D-MN). At SAC, Ann was the primary staff person for the Marketing and Rural Development Committee and led our efforts on such issues as farmers markets, value-added agriculture, and sustainable livestock meat label claim standards. Congratulations Ann!


Supplemental Stalls: The final meeting of the House-Senate conference committee to agree to the FY 09 supplemental appropriations war-funding bill was postponed this week when it became apparent there were not the votes in the House to pass the conference report. The supplemental carries with it important farm credit direct ownership and operating loan funds that NSAC has strongly backed.

At issue in the delay is the House head count which shows that the combination of Democratic liberals who oppose the additional war funding requested by President Obama, when added to Republicans who oppose the inclusion of a Senate provision providing $5 billion to increase the lending capacity of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is sufficient to defeat the conference bill. The way forward is not yet clear, though probably involve switching anti-war protest votes to yes. The House schedule tentatively calls on a House vote on the conference report next week.

NSAC Submits Comments on Research Roadmap: On Sunday, May 31, NSAC submitted comments on the Roadmap for Research, Education, and Extension to the new Research, Education, and Extension Office (REEO) that is tasked with setting criteria for prioritizing research at USDA. Also submitting comments were NSAC member groups: Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, Organic Farming Research Foundation, and Union of Concerned Scientists/Food and Environment Program.

NSAC Joins Appeal to Block Obama Conservation Cuts: On Tuesday, June 2, a group of 50 farm, commodity, conservation, wildlife, environmental and forestry groups in a letter to House and Senate appropriators vigorously opposing the President Obama’s proposed $600 million in farm bill conservation program cuts. The letter protested the proposed cuts to the Wetlands Reserve, Environmental Quality Incentives, Wildlife Habitat Incentives, and Farmland Protection programs, as well as the proposed administrative termination of the CRP public access program. The letter was circulated by the National Association of Conservation Districts in coordination with the Izaak Walton League of America and NSAC.

Vilsack Reaffirms Commitment to Energy and Rural Development, Skimps on Conservation: On Thursday, June 5, Secretary Vilsack testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Agriculture Appropriations. In his laundry list of priorities for the Department, the Secretary included the aggressive implementation of the Energy Title of the 2008 Farm Bill, a “wealth creation” approach to rural development, support for the development of local and regional food systems, a desire to reform crop insurance, a fair resolution to civil rights cases, and support for a $250,000 hard cap on all farm commodity payments.

Secretary Vilsack also listed the projects and funds that USDA has implemented and obligated through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the stimulus bill), including Direct Farm Ownership loans, which NSAC worked to include in the stimulus bill. Senator Harkin (D-IA) asked how the Business and Industry loan program was coming along given the significant increase in funding it received in the stimulus bill, and the Secretary replied that the program is next in line for implementation. This delay is still disconcerting, given the $150 million in stimulus bill funds received for B&I local and regional food enterprise guaranteed loans out of a total B&I $3 billion boost.

Both Senators Reed (D-RI) and Harkin spoke about the importance of conservation programs and expressed concern at the proposed cuts to the Conservation Title and programs such as WRP, EQIP, and WHIP. Secretary Vilsack justified the cut by saying that spending levels for conservation had increased over FY 09 levels and that the budget matched USDA capacity to process the programs.

A somewhat sheepish Vilsack said, “This may not be an acceptable response to your question, but it’s the response I must give, we have overall asked for an increase in money for conservation.” He also claimed that NRCS simply does not have the capacity to deliver programs in accord with the farm bill mandatory funding levels.

In fact, the capacity to deliver the programs depends in large part on the amount of farm bill program dollars that NRCS is allowed to use for technical assistance and delivery. That sum is limited not by Congress of the farm bill, but by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The solution is elementary – increase the percentage of total farm bill mandatory conservation title dollars apportioned to technical assistance, such that field staff capacity matches the large and growing farmer demand for the programs. With leadership from the Secretary and the President, that is very easily accomplished, and would put the money where their mouth is with respect to mitigating climate change, conserving energy, and promoting sustainability.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing on Food Safety: On Wednesday, June 3, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health held a hearing to discuss the ‘Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.’ The draft food safety legislation was prepared by full committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) along with committee members John Dingell (D-MI), Frank Pallone (D-NJ), Bart Stupak (D-MI), Betty Sutton (D-OH), and Diana DeGette (D-CO). Read testimony from the hearing.

The opening statements provided ninety minutes of debate over the range of authorities and resources that should be afforded to Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Generally, the bill’s supporters stressed that a new robust food safety system will benefit industry by preventing outbreaks and restoring consumer confidence, while the more hesitant members expressed concerns about increased bureaucracy at FDA, burdens on industry in a struggling economy, and higher prices for consumers.

Chairman Waxman acknowledged that the proposed $1,000 registration fee in the bill is one of the most contentious issues, but reiterated that appropriations alone will not be enough to allow FDA to perform adequate food safety activities. He believes that industry should “chip in its fair share.” Addressing concerns about the presence of FDA on farms, Waxman stated that FDA will continue to work with state and local authorities with a strong on-farm presence, as it has in the past. “I am confident that farmers have nothing to fear from this bill,” he said.

First to testify was newly-appointed FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Hamburg called the draft a “major step in the right direction” and stated that the bill meets three key FDA criteria by (1) creating a new food safety system focused on prevention, (2) providing the legal authorities to help FDA fulfill its existing and new responsibilities, and (3) providing additional monetary resources.

Hamburg said that registration fees and recordkeeping systems are “of critical importance” to enhance food safety activities but expressed a desire to work with small businesses to ensure that new regulations aren’t too burdensome. She also made clear that neither the substantial proposed budget increases for FDA included in the Administration’s budget nor the revenue from the registration fee in the bill (expected to bring in about $375 million a year) is sufficient to achieve the food facility inspection goals established in the draft bill.

A panel of five witnesses also testified, including representatives from the Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Association, Tennessee Department of Health, and United Fresh Produce Association. Caroline Smith DeWaal, representing the Food Safety Coalition, called on the House to strengthen the bill by requiring food companies to report when and where pathogens are found and by increasing the frequency of inspections, especially in high-risk facilities.

Chairman Waxman indicated that the Health Subcommittee may vote on this legislation as early as next week, with the full committee to follow prior to the July 4 recess.

Proposed Food Safety Amendments: On Friday, June 5, a collaboration of 16 sustainable and organic farming and conservation groups submitted a package of proposed amendments to the farm-related portions of the Waxman bill, including the sections dealing with food safety standards for produce, traceability requirements, registration fees, and research.

Among those submitting the proposed amendments were NSAC member groups ALBA, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, Ecological Farming Association, Izaak Walton League of America, Organic Farming Research Foundation, RAFI-USA, Virginia Association for Biological Farming, Union of Concerned Scientists/Food and Environment Program, and Wild Farm Alliance, as well as NSAC participating members Defenders of Wildlife, Wallace Center at Winrock International, NOFA Interstate Council, and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture.

House Ag Committee Published Climate Comments: On Thursday, June 4, the House Agriculture Committee published and released online a 2,500-plus page committee print containing all of the stakeholder group submissions to the committee’s survey about climate policy and agriculture. The release of the survey results comes as the committee is working to try to put its stamp on the climate legislation moving through the House. A majority of Ag Committee members have expressed strong reservations to the bill that has already moved through the Energy and Commerce Committee. (See last week’s Weekly Update for more details).

The survey was sent to stakeholder groups in March and responses were due in April. Over 200 groups responded, including NSAC member groups Izaak Walton League of America, Land Stewardship Project, National Center for Appropriate Technology, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Virginia Association for Biological Farming.


Ag Appropriations and Food Safety Bills Moving: The FY 2010 agriculture appropriations bill will be marked up in subcommittee in the House this Thursday, June 11. We currently expect the full committee to take up the bill the following week, with House floor consideration sometime after the July 4 recess.

There is also a good chance that the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will mark up food safety legislation sometime this week, to be followed in the coming weeks by the full committee.

No parallel Senate action is scheduled at this point on either bill. We would expect Senate agriculture appropriations action in July and food safety action either in July or in the fall.


Secretary Vilsack Off and Partially Back on the Reservation: At a town hall meeting in Kentucky on Saturday, May 27, USDA Secretary Vilsack made two somewhat startling announcements. First, he stated a preference for USDA rather than EPA overseeing the proposed carbon offset program. Second, he said he agreed with House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) that indirect land use change should not be included when measuring the carbon footprint of ethanol production. While both positions seemed to be at odds with White House policy, a White House spokesperson papered over any differences.

By Friday, June 5, Vilsack was pledging to work with EPA to oversee climate programs as they relate to farms, saying “I think it is important for us to focus on the fact that both agencies need to work together…I am absolutely committed to working with EPA.”

However, no public reports or statements from USDA or the White House that we have seen have as yet provided any clarify about the Administration’s position on indirect land use change since Vilsack’s comment.

Meanwhile, at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday, June 3, several members urged the Administration to back a more expansive definition of biomass with respect to the climate change bill and to the renewable fuels standard. Leading the charge were Representative Herseth-Sandlin (D-SD) and Fortenberry (R-NE). USDA Deputy Under Secretary Jay Jensen responded that the Administration’s position is still being worked out. Underlying the debate are two different definitions of the term biomass, a broader one in the 2008 Farm Bill and a narrower one in the 2007 Energy bill. Among other differences, the latter limits the use of wood from national forest lands.

GAO Finds Room for Reducing Crop Insurance Subsidies: A new GAO report analyzes USDA’s federal crop insurance program and describes opportunities for decreasing the cost of the program. The government subsidizes crop insurance to mitigate risk for insurance companies and to reduce the price of premiums for farmers. The USDA program currently links an insurance company’s administrating and operating (A&O) allowances to crop prices. Thus rising commodity prices have caused A&O receipts to outpace expenses.

GAO recommends that USDA “implement a methodology so that the A&O allowance more closely aligns with expenses,…require companies to annually report commissions to insurance agencies…and establish a standard method for assessing agencies’ reasonable costs.” Although the 2008 Farm Bill reduced A&O allowances by 2.3%, GAO says the allowances for 2009 “are still likely to be well above the levels that occurred before crop prices increased in recent years.”

USDA Research Advisory Board Seeks Nominations: On Tuesday, June 2, the National Agricultural Research Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board announced it is accepting nominations to fill 10 vacancies on the Board for a range of different categories. USDA is soliciting nominations from organizations, associations, societies, groups, councils, federations, and companies that represent a range of agricultural and food interests. The open slots include national farm organization, livestock producer, human health association, food transportation, food marketing, and social science association.

The deadline for nominations is July 17, 2009. Get more information.

Organic Agriculture Survey Deadline Fast Approaching: In early May, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Survey (NASS) mailed the Organic Production Survey to all known organic producers in the US. The survey seeks to collect information from 2008 on topics ranging from production and marketing to income and expenses. Both organic farmers and farmers transitioning to organic production should fill out the survey. The deadline is June 17. Get more information.

ERS Releases New Report on Organic Industry: On Wednesday, June 3, USDA’s Economic Research Service released a report entitled, “Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry.” The report provides an overview of trends in the organic industry and the accompanying issues, including shortfalls in supply, production costs, and competing labels. The report also discusses changes in policies for organic agriculture with the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill.

USDA Appointment Countdown Continues: We continue to update a document on our website with a complete listing of political appointments made to date at USDA. Among the slots still as yet unnamed are:

  • the Under Secretary for Food Safety, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Administrator of the Food Safety Inspection Service
  • the Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment with responsibility for NRCS
  • one of the two Deputy Under Secretaries for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, and
  • the Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics and the Director of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture.


EPA Administrator Names New Agriculture Advisor: On Monday, June 1, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the appointment of Larry Elworth as her Agricultural Counselor. He previously served as Executive Director of the Center for Agricultural Partnerships, a nonprofit organization that works with farmers on developing environmentally sound and economically profitable practices. The Center has focused on increasing participation among farmers who have not previously participated in federal programs, particularly specialty crop producers. The Center also works in partnership with EPA’s Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program and Elworth served on EPA’s Pesticide Policy Dialogue Committee, a federal advisory committee that provides guidance to the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs.

Elworth served as special assistant for pesticide policy for the USDA Secretary from 1993 to 1996 and as liaison to the Domestic Policy Council in the White House. In addition, he has 15 years experience with integrated pest management measures on his own fruit growing operation. NSAC staff has worked with him often over the years, especially during his earlier stint at USDA.


NSAC Participates in CAFO Hill Briefing: On Tuesday, June 2, NSAC staffer Martha Noble joined Dr. Keeve Nachman, Science Director for Food Production, Health and Environment at the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University and Eric Schaffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, at a well-attended briefing for congressional staff on CAFO issues.

The briefing was the first in a series of Clean Water Network briefings – America’s Water Crisis – focusing on critical water pollution issues. A number of congressional staffers attended, as well as people from communities harmed by CAFO water and air pollution. The Clean Water Network plans to take this show on the road with the CAFO presentations at Mississippi River Basin Summits scheduled for July 20-22 in Minneapolis and October in New Orleans. For more information on these Mississippi River Basin Summits, contact Martha Noble at mnoble@sustainableagriculture.net.

Agriculture Census Data Available at Watershed Scale: On Friday, May 29, the National Agricultural Statistics Service announced that Census of Agriculture results have been published at the watershed scale. Information is available for each of the 376 water basins and for all 20 major water sources in the US.

Home Run Healthy Diet: For a look at newly slimmed-down Phillies’ slugger Ryan Howard talking with White House Chef Sam Kass while touring the new White House garden and talking about his new diet of healthy organic food, check out this White House video.

Categories: General Interest

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