NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – March 20, 2009

March 23, 2009


Act Now to Shut Down Multimillion Dollar Farm Subsidy Loophole!

The 2008 Farm Bill handed President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack a rare opportunity to close one of the biggest payment limit loopholes in current regulations. The nation’s largest farms collect unlimited annual production subsidies under rules that permit payments to those who provide only minimal farm management and no active labor. Their ill-gotten gains are used to bid away land from small and beginning farmers choking off economic opportunity and farm entry for the next generation of farmers.

President Obama and Secretary Vilsack need to hear a loud and clear message from farmers and other citizens who care about the future of farming: The time is now to close the loophole that allows widespread abuse of payment limitation law! Comments must be received by April 6, 2009. An NSAC Action Alert with talking points and information on submitting comments is posted here.


Obamas Dig Up White House Lawn, Time Now to Plant and Harvest Real Policy Change

As advocates we often ask ourselves, “Do our efforts change things on the ground?” Leaders and participants of a strong grassroots effort to change the ground on the White House lawn can now say,


Our hats go off to the folks at Eat the View, the WHO Farm, and the White House Farmer among others, whose tireless work led to the newly-broken ground for an organic garden on the White House lawn. Apart from having tremendous symbolic value, this act will hopefully inspire anyone with access to a small plot of land to plant some seeds and take food matters into their own hands.

As the Obamas transform their own backyard from an input-intensive monocrop that is the lawn to a diverse organic garden, there are significant opportunities to transform the nation’s land as well.

Without going through the exhaustive list of problems with our current agriculture system and policies to change them, here are examples of the low-hanging fruit that the Obama Administration can act on today (in addition to planting a White House garden!) to create a better food and agriculture system:

  • Working lands can’t wait:

The Bush Administration punted the rule-making for the Conservation Stewardship Program and many other programs to the current administration. Without an interim final rule, farmers cannot sign-up for this pillar working-lands conservation program before this crop year is over. Want to foster climate-friendly farming? Get a strong rule finalized and start signing farmers up for this innovative program by late spring.

  • Stimulate that economy just a bit more:

The Value-Added Producer Grant program is a successful, competitive grants program that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation in agriculture, and just happens to create jobs as well by assisting those who want to add value to their farm products by serving a burgeoning consumer market for high quality local and regional food. President Obama has signaled that it is due for a long overdue funding increase – we hope the White House budget released in April will provide no less than $30 million, with a plan to grow the program in future years.

  • Give new farmers a seat at the table:

The 2008 Farm Bill established the Office of Advocacy and Outreach to serve as the go-to office at the USDA for small and mid-sized farms and beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. It’s time to get this office up and running so that the multiple new programs that benefit these farmers can be effectively used. And new USDA goals to increase farming opportunities can be established and agencies held accountable for meeting the targets.

  • Make sure that only people who farm are “farmers”:

Funny thing happened on the way to the FSA office: I met an absentee non-farm investor walking out with a check for his participation in farm programs. The Administration can change the loopholes in the “Actively Engaged” rule, ensuring that real farmers, not those Wall Street types (aren’t TARP funds enough?), get government support for farming.

  • Level the playing field:

Since all the way back to 1921 it has been illegal for meatpackers to discriminate against small and mid-sized farms. But USDA has never been keen on enforcement, permitting sweetheart deals for mega-volume producers at the expense of the little guy. The 2008 Farm Bill told USDA to write regulations to strictly enforce the law, and now its time for the Administration to face down moneyed interests and write tough regulations.

  • Bring the farm to school:

In keeping with the nutrition education bonanza presented by its new garden, the White House should now insist that when Congress rewrites the Child Nutrition Act this year that it provide substantial annual mandatory funding for Farm to School projects, to provide school children all over the country to join Malia and Sasha with new opportunities to eat fresh, local and nutritious!

In addition to the symbolic new White House organic garden, these programs will break ground across the country for a sustainable 21st century food and agriculture system.


NSAC Holds Inaugural Meeting: The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture held the inaugural meeting of its member organizations March 15 – 17 in Alexandria, VA. 90 people convened, including representatives from 40 of NSAC’s 65 member organizations, as well as 15 farmers associated with several of NSAC’s member organizations.

The meeting included updates on the latest happenings in DC from NSAC policy staff, including sustainable agriculture priorities in the recently passed stimulus bill, omnibus spending bill for FY2009, and upcoming FY2010 appropriations legislation. NSAC’s five Issue Committees and the Policy Council also held meetings to come to consensus on which of the many issues of concern to the diverse membership of the Coalition should be the priorities toward which the DC staff devotes its finite resources. The priority-setting process is still ongoing, but the discussions at the meeting advanced this process tremendously.

On Tuesday, March 17, NSAC meeting attendees trekked to Capitol Hill to establish and strengthen relationships with members of Congress, USDA, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by visiting them in small constituent groups to discuss specific NSAC priorities with them. Over 60 legislative and 10 Administration visits were made.

Vilsack Visit: One of the highlights of the event was a visit by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who addressed the group on the second day of the meeting. Vilsack said that if he was asked to summarize President Obama’s agenda for USDA in one word, that word might be “sustainable.” He spoke of the need for more sustainable rural communities in America, and said that farmers need greater access to off-farm income, which can be facilitated by greater rural access to broadband internet and by such initiatives as the Rural Microentrepreneurial Assistance Program.

The Secretary also highlighted the connection between agriculture and energy usage, and said transitioning away from dependence on fossil fuels will be a major priority at USDA. He mentioned improved child nutrition and access to healthy food as a major new thrust. Vilsack also spoke of the need to increase opportunities for beginning farmers, to put in place a more efficient and effective system to address food safety concerns, and to use USDA policy as a tool to stimulate the economy, especially through food assistance programs.

Secretary Vilsack made himself available for questions from the group, and Duane Sand of the Iowa Natural Heritage Society requested that he champion the Conservation Stewardship Program. Vilsack was very receptive to this, and highlighted his advocacy of conservation efforts as governor of Iowa. He said CSP offers a way to make small and mid-size farms more viable. He also noted the importance of organic programs for small and mid-sized farms, and, to great applause, mentioned the important role Kathleen Merrigan will be able to play in this area when she joins the Administration as the Deputy Secretary of the USDA.

Margaret Krome of the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in Wisconsin asked Secretary Vilsack to champion the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program. He candidly stated that he is not specifically aware of the specific budget requests for those programs, but that he would be supportive since those programs that have a demonstrable link to the Administration’s policy objectives he outlined.

In response to a question on USDA rulemakings from NSAC grassroots coordinator Annette Higby, Vilsack said that he is aware of the need for a strong new rule on what it means to be “actively engaged in agriculture” for the purpose of commodity payments, and stated that drafting a new rule to prohibit “undue price preferences” for large volume livestock producers is already under way and he is watching its progress closely.

Finally, Maria Moreira of Flats Mentor Farm in Massachusetts commended the Secretary on the recently posted Request for Applications for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and urged him to make sure the new Office of Advocacy and Outreach — which will oversee programs addressing small farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers — be established immediately as directed in the recent farm bill.


PLEASE! USE OUR FARM BILL WINS! Reminders of Funding Availabilities: Last week we reported on four newly USDA requests for proposals for grant funding. A quick recap:

  • Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program – Applications due May 13, 2009; nearly $18 million available. Look here for complete information.
  • Farmers Market Promotion Program – Applications are due by April 27, 2009; nearly $5 million available. Look here for complete information.
  • Rural Energy for America Energy Audit Grants – Applications due by June 9, 2009; nearly $2.5 million available. Look here for complete information.
  • Agriculture and Food Research Initiative – Application due date varies by subprogram, ranging from April through August, 2009; over $200 million is available. Look here for complete information.
  • Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative – Applications are due by April 23, 2009; over $50 million is available in project-based farmer conservation payments. Look here for complete information.


NSAC Submits Conservation Comments:  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition this week submitted comments to USDA pertaining to interim final rules for the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) and Technical Service Providers (TSP).

In our WRP comments we speak out strongly against harsh restrictions added to the WRP rule by the last Administration that could force landowners to repay WRP payments even while the easement on the land would remain in place.  We call instead for reasonable remedies to land transfers that do not discourage farmers from enrolling in WRP in the first place.  We also oppose overly broad powers the Bush rule would grant to the government to force landowners to accept third party access to wetlands without the landowner’s agreement.

In our TSP comments we call for use of third party technical assistance provider services to be targeted to areas and situations where private providers can deliver conservation services for substantially less money than internal USDA costs and to issues where Natural Resource Conservation Service employees lack experience and skills, including organic farming and whole farm energy audits.  We also call for new policies to provide farmers the same level of cost share funding whether they receive assistance from the public or private sector and to require private sector providers to abide by conflict of interest rules.  Neither of those policies currently exists nor does the interim rule address the issues.

Food Supply Protection Hearing:  The House Energy and Commerce Committee — the committee with jurisdiction over food safety — held a hearing on Thursday, March 19, to examine the salmonella outbreak in peanuts produced by the Peanut Corporation of America (PCA).  Three witnesses, Heather Isely, Co-President of Vitamin Cottage Inc., Martin Kanan, President and CEO of King Nut Company, and David Mackay, President and CEO of Kellogg Company, represented their respective company and discussed the outbreak as it impacted retailers, distributors, and manufacturers.

Members of the Committee wanted to know why other companies did not follow Nestle USA’s approach to failed audits and send their own auditor to inspect PCA’s plant. Nestle rejected PCA as a supplier in 2006 after the plant flunked the Nestle inspection.  Most other companies relied solely on third party auditors hired by PCA.

All three witnesses claimed that improvements in food safety need to come from FDA and noted that businesses can face serious economic burdens when they pay for and rely on third party auditors.  Heather Isely, representing a small chain of natural food retailers, said that with over 13,000 suppliers, her company simply cannot afford third party audits for each supplier.

Kellogg’s Mackay endorsed two ideas not generally favored by industry trade associations — user fees on industry to pay for stronger food safety laws and a single food safety authority under the Health and Human Services Department.  The latter idea has been backed by House Agriculture Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in her bill H.R. 825 and has been suggested as a possible option to food safety improvement by President Obama.

However, during the course of the hearing, Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) signaled his intention to use legislation (H.R. 759) introduced by Committee members John Dingell and Bart Stupak, both Michigan Democrats, as the foundation of any food safety overhaul the Energy and Commerce Committee takes up during this two-year session of Congress.

To read more about the hearing and testimony, go to http://energycommerce.house.gov/.


Budget Resolution Mark-ups Pending: There are two weeks left for Congress to tackle the budget resolution for 2010 before splitting town for the two-week April recess. The budget resolution sets out broad spending goals and caps for both mandatory and discretionary spending. On the discretionary side, the budget figure determines the overall cap on the FY 2010 appropriations bills to be written later this year by Congress. On the mandatory side, the budget will determine how much new spending will be available for big ticket items like health care reform and smaller ticket items like child nutrition program reauthorization.

When the budget resolution is written, and later when appropriations bills and new authorizations like the Child Nutrition Act are voted on, the spending assumptions for those bills are determined by consulting the Congressional Budget Office March Baseline. This March baseline was released Friday, March 20. The CBO projections show a somewhat higher deficit level should Congress enact President Obama’s budget proposal than the White House projected, with FY 2010 pegged at $1.37 trillion rather than $1.17 trillion.

Over in the agriculture part of the CBO projection, the new tabulations show farm commodity spending increasing for this year and next two years relative to projections made just two short months ago in January. The 2009 estimate soared nearly $650 million to $9.4 billion while the 2010 estimate climbed by $550 million to $8.1 billion, and the 2011 projection went up $805 million to $9.1 billion.

When the Senate Budget Committee takes up its bill next week, we expect a vote on a budget instruction backing payment limitation reform to cap per farmer production subsidies at no greater than $250,000 a year. As in other recent years, that message amendment, backed by NSAC, will be brought forward by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). President Obama’s budget proposal submitted to Congress also endorses enactment of a $250,000 payment limitation.

Confirmations Hearing Hopefully Coming Soon: A confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee has yet to be scheduled for the designees for USDA Deputy Secretary (Kathleen Merrigan), Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Ag Services (Jim Miller), and Under Secretary for Rural Development (Dallas Tonsager). However, there is a reasonably good chance the Senate Agriculture Committee will be schedule the hearing for the week of March 30 and, if so, it will likely be followed by a full Senate vote to confirm the nominees prior to Congress leaving town for the first two full weeks of April.

House Ag Asks for Climate Views and Schedules Oversight Hearings: The House Agriculture Committee has issued an appeal for organizations and individuals to submit answers to a questionnaire on agriculture role in potential climate change cap and trade or carbon tax legislation. The questionnaire is available on the Committee’s website and responses must be submitted by April 10, 2009.

The Committee also has a series of upcoming hearings, including a review of conservation program contracts on March 25 at 10 AM eastern, a review of the state of obesity in the US on March 26 at 10 AM eastern, a review of innovative approaches to rural development on March 31 at 1 PM eastern, and a review of the farm economy on April 1 at 11 AM. All hearings can be listened to through a live audio feed from the Committee’s website.


NOSB Meeting Announced: On Friday, March 20, the National Organic Standards Board announced the agenda in the Federal Register for its upcoming May 4-6 meeting in Washington, DC. Issues on the agenda include a review of and recommendations for a number of materials permitted in organic processing, handling, and crop and livestock production. Committees will also present recommendations for strengthening the principles of biodiversity, revising the Board’s policy manual, and reviewing the collaboration with the National Organic Program. The meeting is open to the public and sets aside time for public comment on May 4 and 5. Check out the NOSB website for more information about the meeting and recommendations.


Food Safety Buzz: Amid the chatter on the blogs and foodie listserves in the wake of the introduction of several food safety bills this year in Congress, the Friday, March 20, 2009 edition of The Hill (a Capitol Hill rag read by staffers and legislators) contains a 5-page special section on Agriculture and Food Safety.

The special section includes a short piece by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) outlining the food safety bill she recently introduced to fundamentally restructure the food safety bureaucracy by establishing a new Food Safety Administration within the Department of Health and Human Service. Another piece, by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) draws the connection between food safety and food imports. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) argues that food safety concerns can be addressed with improvements to the existing system and more prudent use of current funding, while House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) notes his intention to conduct food safety oversight hearings regarding both FDA and USDA.

At its meeting in Washington, D.C. this week, the members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition decided to form an emergency task force to discuss and analyze food safety bills and to develop policy over the next several months from the vantage point of small and mid-sized farms, of sustainable and organic operations, and of conservation impacts of food safety legislation. Stay tuned for future updates from this group.

Categories: General Interest

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