NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – June 8-12, 2009

June 15, 2009


Plan Now for August Recess! You don’t have to go all the way to Washington DC to meet with your Congressman, Senators or their staff. In August, your legislators will be coming to you!

During the August recess they’ll be heading for their home state or district to meet with constituents, to attend public events and generally reconnect with the locals. The House is in recess from August 3rd through September 3rd. The Senate is in recess from August 6th through September 3rd.

August recess is a great opportunity for NSAC member organizations and their farmers to meet with and get to know their members of Congress.  It’s an opportunity to educate them about your organization and our issues without the expense of a plane ticket or a DC hotel room.  In-district meetings can be just as effective as DC meetings and you’ll burn a lot less carbon in the process.

There are some pointers for planning an in-district meeting on our Take Action page.

And to be sure you are well primed for your meeting, two NSAC members — Adam Warthesen of the Land Stewardship Project and Frank James with Dakota Rural Action — will provide training on how to organize an in-district meeting at the NSAC summer meeting in Lawrence, Kansas, August 2 – 4.


House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Approves FY 10 Bill:   On Thursday, June 11, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee met to markup and vote on the agriculture appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2010.  The bill provides $22.9 billion in discretionary funds, an increase of approximately 11 percent over FY 09 levels but $79 million short of President Obama’s request.

The bulk of the increased funding in the bill goes for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and international food aid. Under the bill, the WIC program receives $7.54 billion, up $681 million or 10 percent from FY 09 but close to $240 million short of the President’s request and likely short of the funding level it will receive in the final FY 10 bill later this year. FDA receives $2.35 billion – an increase of $299 million – and this amount reaches $3 billion factoring in user fees. International food aid receives a $464 million increase to $1.7 billion, while the McGovern-Dole international school lunch program receives doubles in size to $200 million.

Since the bill has not yet been released publicly, we cannot report on how all sustainable agriculture priorities fared. Next week’s edition of the Update will include full information and an updated version of our appropriations tracking chart. We do know the following:

  • Conservation:  The draft bill allocates $980.3 million (a 1% increase) in discretionary spending for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The bill rejects all of the cuts to farm bill conservation programs proposed by President Obama (thus saving $267 million worth of funding for the Wetlands Reserve, Farmland Protection, and other programs) except for a proposed $270 million cut to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (a $20 million larger cut than proposed by the President). With the cut factored in, EQIP would have $1.18 billion available in FY 10.  The bill also restores funding to the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention program and the Resource Conservation and Development program, both of which the President proposed to eliminate.
  • Marketing and Rural Development: The draft bill allocates just over $1 billion for Marketing and Regulatory Programs and $2.8 billion for Rural Development. The bill funds the Value-Added Producer Grant program at $18.9 million, rejecting the Obama-proposed increase to $21.9 million and the NSAC request for $30 million. The National Organic Program would receive $6.7 million under the bill, the same $2.8 million increase as the Administration requested.
  • BFR IDA:  The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Individual Development Accounts pilot program is not funded. We hope there will be an amendment to the bill in full committee to provide for the $5 million requested by the President and endorsed by NSAC. The IDA program authorization was an NSAC 2008 farm bill priority. We have not yet received word on the bill’s overall farm credit funding levels.
  • Research: The bill level funds the Agricultural Research Service at about $1.2 billion and increases funding for the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service by 2% to $1.25 billion.  Increases were included for formula funds and for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, though we do not have precise numbers. The Organic Transitions Research program is more than doubled to $5 million, but sadly the Sustainable Agriculture Research Education (SARE) program receives level funding at $19 million. SARE funding will need to increase later in the appropriations process or the SARE federal-state matching grant program cannot be initiated next year as anticipated.
  • Energy: The Subcommittee bill would retain the $60 million in mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and provide an additional $20 million in discretionary funding. The $80 million total is in keeping with the farm bill authorization, in contrast to the President’s request for $128 million for the program, an amount that far exceeded the authorization.
  • NAIS: The bill eliminates funding for the National Animal Identification System, a move that will certainly receive additional debate as the process moves forward.

The Subcommittee approved the draft bill by voice vote without amendment. The full committee markup is expected to occur on Thursday, June 18.

Conferees Approve Supplemental Appropriations with Farm Loan Funds:   On Thursday, House and Senate appropriations conferees signed off on a $106 billion FY 2009 supplemental emergency appropriations measure containing critical funding for farmer loans. The bill, which has bogged down in recent weeks over disputes regarding the IMF, Guantanamo, and other controversial issues, is expected to go to the floor of the House on Tuesday with action in the Senate on Thursday.

While most of the measure provides supplemental funding to wage wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it does contain important emergency funding for direct farm ownership and operating loans. USDA ran out of money to make loans to farmers in the last several months due to the economic and financial crisis and low prices in some segments of agriculture.  The conferees agreed on a supplemental measure that includes $360 million for direct farm ownership loans, $400 million in direct operating loans, and a little over $50 million in unsubsidized guaranteed operating loans, funding levels that NSAC and allies have been advocating for since early this year.

This is some really welcome relief. We expect USDA to quickly resume loan making, starting with the large backlog of loans already approved but awaiting funding, once the bill is signed into law.

In testimony before the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, June 11, Farm Service Agency Administrator Doug Caruso noted that financial stress conditions together with farm bill changes have driven up demand for direct ownership loans by 132 percent, direct operating loans by 81 percent, and guaranteed operating loans by 31 percent.

Providing proof of the pay-off from years of NSAC advocacy to improve beginning farmer lending rules, Caruso’s testimony noted the beginning farmer direct loan caseload increased from 3,474 in 1995 to 18,785 in 2008. Though not in the testimony, FSA has also told us that over 800 beginning farmers have been approved for Down Payment Loans since the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill a year ago, a bill that included several NSAC-proposed improvements to the program that are now paying off. Many of those down payment borrowers are anxiously awaiting the funds from the supplemental appropriations in order to move forward with their farm purchase.

Food Safety Bill Passes Subcommittee: The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health unanimously approved a manager’s amendment to the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009 at a mark-up session on June 10, 2009. The amendment, which serves as a replacement for the draft legislation, reduces the controversial yearly registration fee for all food facilities from $1,000 to $500. In addition, it includes language that takes into consideration the impact new regulations may have on small-scale and diversified farms, conservation practices, and organic production.

Some members expressed concern that the rigorous facility inspection schedule is unrealistic and that standardized electronic recordkeeping requirements will be a burden on small businesses. Representative Deal (R-GA) requested limits on FDA’s new authority to impose civil monetary penalties on food companies, especially in cases where violations are unintentional and harmless. Seven amendments were offered by the GOP, but each was withdrawn after Subcommittee Chairman Pallone (D-NJ) and Representative Dingell (D-MI) promised to work with their colleagues to assuage their concerns.

Committee Chairman Waxman (D-CA) indicated that the full committee will consider the measure on Wednesday, June 17. Several member organizations of NSAC and of the National Organic Coalition are resubmitting a proposed list of amendments to the full committee in advance of the markup.

House Agriculture Hearing on Waxman-Markey Climate Change Legislation:  On Thursday, June 11, the House Agriculture Committee held a hearing on H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy & Security Act of 2009. Witnesses included USDA Secretary Vilsack and representatives from the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, National Association of Conservation Districts, National Corn Growers Association, National Milk Producers, The Fertilizer Institute, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and First Environment – a company that conducts greenhouse gas (GHG) offset verifications.

As reported out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month, H.R. 2454 does not include agriculture as a sector that would be required to reduce GHG emissions but does leave agriculture as sector that could provide offsets for other GHG emitters by reducing GHGs or sequestering carbon in agricultural operations. The major issue addressed at the hearing was whether EPA or USDA would determine what agriculture practices and systems could be used for offsets. Secretary Vilsack, who had previously stated that he favored USDA having full control over agriculture in climate change legislation, took the position at the hearing that responsibilities for agriculture should be shared by USDA, EPA and other agencies.

Later the same day, Energy and Commerce chair Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Agriculture chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) held face-to-face talks for 90 minutes that according to press reports yielded no firm agreement. Neither Peterson nor Ways and Means chair Charles Rangel (D-NY) have given a firm indication of whether their committees will mark up the bill by the June 19 deadline for committee action set by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Instead of separate mark ups, issues presented by Peterson or Rangel might be negotiated with Waxman and then included in a managers amendment on the House floor.

The congressional clock is ticking on climate change legislation, with House leaders indicating that legislation must come to the floor before the July 4th congressional recess because health care legislation will take over the agenda after the recess. On the Senate side, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has indicated that the Committee is preparing to take up climate change legislation the week of August 3, before the start of the August recess, if there is a House bill in play.

Letter to Congress on Organic Agriculture and Climate Change:  NSAC signed onto a letter to inform the debate on agriculture and climate change prepared by the National Organic Coalition. The letter was delivered on Wednesday to the Chairs and Ranking Members of the House Agriculture Committee and the House Energy and Commerce committees.  The letter provides a summary of scientific studies demonstrating the benefits of conservation practices used in sustainable and organic agricultural production systems in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon. Much of the debate over agricultural offsets has focused narrowly on no-till farming, despite an increasing number of research studies questioning its soil carbon benefits.

NSAC Endorses Legislation to Limit Animal Antibiotic Use:   Last week NSAC joined a list of organizations endorsing H.R. 1549/S. 619 – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. The Act would preserve the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics used in the treatment of human and animal diseases by reviewing the safety of certain antibiotics used for nontherapeutic purposes in food-producing animals. Industrialized animal production uses large amounts of antibiotics for purposes such as growth promotion which leads to increased antibiotic resistance in pathogens that infect both humans and animals. If your organization would like to endorse the Act, please contact Brise Tencer of the Union of Concerned Scientists at btencer@ucsusa.org.


Two Full Committee Mark Ups Expected: On Wednesday, June 17, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take up the food safety bill approved in Subcommittee last week. The next day, the full House Appropriations Committee is expected to mark up the FY 10 agriculture appropriations bill.


Upper Management Changes at USDA Homer Lee Wilkes, state conservationist in Mississippi, has withdrawn his name from consideration for the position of Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, citing personal reasons. No new nomination has been made yet by the White House. Also, there is still no news on the yet-to-be-named Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resource and Environment with responsibility for NRCS.

In another upper echelon USDA change, President Obama announced on Wednesday that he has nominated John Norris, Chief of Staff to Secretary Vilsak, as a commissioner of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  A new chief of staff will be named once the new appointment is confirmed. Norris’ wife Jackie recently switched from being Chief of Staff to the First Lady to become senior advisor for the Corporation for National and Community Service.

On Tuesday, June 9, Vilsack named Tammye Trevino the new Administrator for Housing and Community Facilities with the rural development mission area. Trevino is the CEO of FUTURO, a Texas housing and economic development non-profit. She has been on the receiving end of several USDA loan and grant programs, including the Intermediary Relending Program and Rural Business Enterprise Program. She is a native of Pearsall, Texas.

RMAP Stumbles We have received word that the Administration has decided not to issue a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) in FY 2009, despite the farm bill providing $4 million for the program for this year and despite the high priority placed on the program in the President’s budget request for FY 10.  The new plan appears to be to first issue an interim final rule for the program, projected to be completed by the end of calendar year 2009, with the first NOFA to follow. We are investigating this baffling story further and hopefully will have more to report soon.

Revised VAPG NOSA Soon:  In testimony for the House Subcommittee on Rural Development on Wednesday, June 10, USDA Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager made official that the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program’s Notice of Solicitation of Applications (NOSA) issued on May 6 has been withdrawn in response to concerns “raised by this Subcommittee.” The Department will reissue the NOSA as soon as it can, this time with a 90 application period, meaning that no awards will be made until October at the earliest.

NSAC had requested several critical changes to the first NOSA to bring it into compliance with the 2008 Farm Bill, particularly the provisions dealing with small and medium sized farms, local food systems, mid tier value chains, and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Similar concerns were raised by House and Senate Agriculture Committee staff.

In his testimony, Tonsager called VAPG “a very powerful, highly flexible, but yet underutilized tool” that has “proven itself to be effective, cost-efficient, and productive.”

The testimony did not make reference to the Local and Regional Food enterprise guaranteed loan program, part of the USDA Business and Industry (B&I) program that received $3 billion in additional funding in the economic recovery bill earlier this year, which translates into an additional $150 million for local food loans. In fact, the chart of recovery funding levels included in the testimony refers to the B&I funding level as “to be announced.”

NSAC Sends Recommendations on Livestock Title Regulations:  On Tuesday, June 9, NSAC delivered a letter with our recommendations on 2008 Farm Bill Livestock Title regulations to USDA Secretary Vilsack with copies to the new Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards (GIPSA) Administrator J. Dudley Butler and other USDA officials. Secretary Vilsack has affirmed that he wants USDA to promulgate regulations before the end of this year to prevent packers and processors from giving undue or unreasonable preferences to some livestock and poultry producers.  He also wants USDA to finalize in 2008 regulations that will increase protections for poultry growers in their relationship with large integrated poultry processors.

BCAP Environmental Review and NOFA: On Thursday, USDA’s Farm Service Agency issued a Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) for funding in 2009 for the portion of the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) that provides payments for the collection, harvest, storage, and transportation (CHST) of material eligible under the program, including agricultural residues.

The only restriction on receiving payments for removal of residues on cropland is that removal “be consistent” with conservation plans for highly erodible land.   For pastureland and rangeland, there are no USDA-imposed safeguards for water quality, soil quality, wildlife habitat, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or any other environmental consideration. NSAC had urged USDA to provide for a limited NOFA for the entire BCAP program in 2009 but with strong conservation standards.   The first-ever NOFA for the program leaves much to be desired in terms of safeguards.

The NOFA takes effect immediately with FSA taking comments on the NOFA until August 10, 2009.

FSA is currently in the process of preparing an environmental impact assessment for an eventual regulation for BCAP which includes both the CHST and measures which provide funding for farmers and others to establish bioenergy crops and trees. The comment period on the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement for a regulation for the entire BCAP program closed on June 12. The contractor for the EIS has indicated that a Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement will be available for comment in late July 2009, with the Final statement to be issued in October, 2009.  NSAC comments on the scope of the EIS are posted here.

NRCS Seeks Input on Conservation Practice Technical Assistance:  On Friday, June 12, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service announced in the Federal Register that it is seeking public input on how to improve conservation practice standards, including engineering design specifications, so that they are relevant to local agricultural, natural resource, and forestry needs, and are applicable to organic farming, specialty crops, bioenergy production, and pollinators. The comments are due on August 11, 2009. NSAC’s conservation committee will be considering responses this notice in the near future.


EPA Workshop on Lifecycle Modeling for Renewable Biofuels:  Under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, EPA must assess the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of renewable biofuels relative to the emissions of petroleum fuels in 2005. In order to qualify for tax credits under the Act, the renewable biofuels must meet percentage reductions from the GHG level of petroleum fuels. The corn ethanol and soybean diesel industry raised a ruckus when EPA issued its proposed regulation for this assessment because corn ethanol and soy diesel performed poorly. EPA included GHGs both from indirect land conversion, including land conversion overseas, which could occur when land is converted to agriculture for food production to replace land used for biofuel production.

On Wednesday and Thursday, EPA conducted workshops with detailed presentations on the models used to determine the relative GHG emissions. This analysis also has relevance to pending federal climate change legislation.  The power point presentations from the workshop are currently posted here.


SAVE THE DATE! NSAC Workshop on State Technical Committee Workshops at July Clean Water Network Summit On July 20-21 in Minneapolis, NSAC will be hosting a workshop on NRCS State Technical Committees (STC) to coincide with the Clean Water Network’s Upper Mississippi River Basin Summit on July 21-22. The STC workshop will include an overview of Farm Bill conservation programs, with emphasis on how the programs can be used to protect water quality and aquatic habitat, detailed information on participation in NRCS State Technical Committees and the Local Working Group Subcommittees, and the opportunity to meet up and network with other conservation groups and sustainable agriculture groups that work for effective change for sustainable agriculture in farm bill conservation programs.  Contact Martha Noble at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, mnoble@sustainableagriculture.net, if you are interested in attending the State Technical Committee Workshop.

Sustainable Agriculture Education Conference Iowa State University will host the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association’s 3rd national conference, July 15-17 in Ames, Iowa. Speakers include Matt Liebman, the Henry A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State.

Organic Initiative Progress Report: The first round of the special Organic Initiative under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is still in process, though for many states the sign-up period is now complete for this first ranking session. As of this past week, there have been 1,767 applications, including 837 from farmers wishing to convert to organic production and 930 from existing organic farmers wishing to expand their organic operation or improve their conservation performance. States with close to or over 100 applicants include California (163), Wisconsin (134), New York (133), Iowa (124), Washington (113), and Texas (99).

Categories: General Interest

Comments are closed.