NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – March 30-April 3, 2009

April 6, 2009



Reminder: Visit Your Representative and Senators Over Recess! As the cherry and magnolia blossoms linger a few more days on the trees around D.C., members of Congress are heading home for a two-week Easter recess.  This is an excellent time for sustainable agriculture advocates to attend listening sessions and town-hall style meetings and let Senators and Representatives know about our sustainable agriculture priorities.  For tips on how to do this, check out friend of NSAC and Food and Society Policy Fellow, Lisa Kivirist’s post on the NSAC blog this week “Democracy Delivery: Four Tips When Attending Your Congressional Representatives Town Hall Meetings This Spring.” If you’d like any talking points on NSAC’s priorities, feel free to contact staff at our office: 202-547-5754.


Act NOW to Shut Down Multimillion Dollar Farm Subsidy Loophole:  Time is running short to urge Secretary Vilsack to finally close the worst farm subsidy loophole on the books.  If you have already submitted a comment, thank you!  If you haven’t yet submitted a comment, you have until Monday, April 6th.  It’s so easy to submit a comment.  There is a sample comment letter available here, or you can write your own based on this action alert.

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!




House and Senate Approve Budgets:  The House and Senate approved budgets of about $3.5 trillion on Thursday with no Republican support.  Democrat leaders and many commentators said the two budgets, which will have to be reconciled during and after a two-week Congressional recess, cleared the way for health care, energy and education overhauls pushed by President Obama, though that is a generous interpretation of the facts.

House Republicans offered budget alternatives featuring a domestic spending freeze and broad tax cuts, but House Democrats easily defeated Republican alternatives and progressive Democratic alternatives, winning backing for their budget from all segments of their party, from conservative rural Blue Dogs to urban liberals.  The 233-to-196 vote, though hardly overwhelming, actually reflected a strong show of Democratic support for the budget, since it often barely passes.  It was the first time in a dozen years that a budget had received more than 230 votes.  Twenty House Democrats, nearly all either freshmen, southerners, or blue dogs, opposed the budget, and two Senate Democrats (Nelson – NE, Bayh – IN) did as well.

Both the House and Senate budgets pared domestic discretionary spending from the President’s initial request (by $7 billion and $16 billion, respectively) and made other adjustments — including rejection of the President’s Making Work Pay tax cut — intended to reduce the annual deficit to less than $600 billion within five years, about half the $1.2 trillion projected for the 2010 fiscal year, which begins October 1.

The cut to domestic discretionary spending will translate into lower allocations to the non-defense, non-homeland security appropriations subcommittees, which in turn will make it harder to win gains for sustainable agriculture and rural development programs supported in the President’s budget.

Neither bill includes the President’s proposals for how to pay for health care reform, how to rebate the proceeds of a carbon auction expected to be included in a climate change bill, or how to pay for an extension of middle class tax cuts.  The bills also make hefty assumptions about offsetting reductions in the Alternative Minimum Tax that do not accord with the legislative track record on that issue.

The biggest issue to be decided in the House-Senate conference in the coming weeks will be whether to include the House-passed “reconciliation” instruction for health care reform and education spending which would have the effect of allowing those two priorities to be passed in the Senate with 51 instead of 60 votes.  The provision is not included in the Senate budget and its absence in the final deal could greatly reduce the chances for action on either item this year.

Estate Tax Amendment Passes
:  During Senate consideration of the budget resolution, Senators Lincoln (D-AR) and Kyl (R-AZ) passed an amendment on a close 51-48 vote to provide space within the budget for a major estate tax cut.  The amendment assumes the Congress will reduce the estate tax rate from 45 percent to 35 percent and increase the estate tax exemption from $7 million per couple to $10 million per couple, a move that would benefit the wealthiest people in the country at an increased cost of about $250 billion over the next ten years.

Ten Democrats voted for the measure, all of whom represent significant farm states: Lincoln and Pryor (AR), Baucus and Tester (MT), Cantwell and Murray (WA), Bayh (IN), Nelson (NE), Nelson (FL), and Landrieu (LA).  As is always the case in these debates, significantly hyped-up stories about how estate taxes on very large estates will hurt the family farm once again rang forth from supporters of the amendment despite little concrete evidence to support those claims.

Merrigan, Miller, Leonard Confirmed
:  On Wednesday, April 1, the Senate Agriculture Committee held a confirmation hearing on the nominations of Kathleen Merrigan to be USDA Deputy Secretary (the #2 job), Jim Miller to be Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Services (often thought of as the #3 job), and Joe Leonard, Jr. to be Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

The hearing was cordial and relatively uneventful, highlighted primarily by comments from Senator Chambliss (R-GA) and Senator Roberts (R-KS) attempting to contrast sustainable and organic agriculture with “production” agriculture.  We decided to interpret that contrast as an April’s Fools joke.

The full Senate confirmed all three appointments on Thursday night, April 2.

Vilsack Meets with House Agriculture Appropriators:  On Tuesday, March 31, Secretary Vilsack had a cordial and comprehensive first appearance before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.  The Secretary was asked a range of questions from the definition of Actively Engaged (the comment period ends April 6), to Animal Identification (he’s not yet ready to move to a mandated system and sees it also as a national security issue), to the School Lunch Program (it has to be improved).   Representative DeLauro’s opening statement referred to USDA as a “department desperate for reform” and stressed that in the 1977 Farm Bill it was designated as the country’s leading nutrition agency and that she expects to see USDA use this year’s Child Nutrition Act reauthorization as an opportunity to make concrete improvements in childhood nutrition.

Secretary Vilsack continued the nutrition theme in his opening statement, pointing out that the School Food Services Programs represent an excellent and largely untapped market for family farmers.   Improved nutrition, local food system development (as part of rural development and to help maintain mid-sized farms) and food safety accounted for most of the discussion.

The Secretary noted that although he is the co-chair of the President’s Food Safety Working Group, two thirds of the group has yet to be appointed but he is committed to acting as soon as possible.

New Timetable for Farm Bill Implementation
:  Appended to Secretary Vilsack’s appropriation testimony (see above), was a new timetable for implementation of key farm bill programs.  Some of the items were old news, but several things stood out to us and will be the subject of an NSAC memo to the Secretary early next week:


The Conservation Stewardship Program (interim final rule) is now listed for publication in June, over a month later than previously announced.


The bulk of the Conservation Reserve Program (proposed rule) is now not even given a target date, and remains mired in an Environmental Impact Statement study process.


Likewise, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (listed as a final rule, though we do not know why it would not be proposed or interim final and thus subject to public comment) is also subject to an Environmental Impact Statement process, though in the case with a target date of June 2010 (more than a year from now and more than two years after the farm bill became law).


In our view, all three of these timelines are unacceptable.


More positively, the list also includes the following target dates:


  • Value-Added Producer Grants NOFA – April 2009
  • Rural Coop Development Grants NOFA – April 2009
  • Rural Energy for America NOSA – April 2009
  • Farmers Market Promotion Program proposed and final Rule – April and August 2009
  • Rural Microentrpreneur Assistance Grants NOSA – May 2009
  • Undue Preferences and Contract Reform proposed and final rules – July and December 2009
  • Farm Loan Making proposed rule – July 2009
  • Beginning Farmer IDA Pilot Program NOFA – Calendar year 2009

The chart also lists the commodity program payment limit rule, including the actively engaged in farming rules, as going final in October 2009, which we will argue is a couple of months later than it should be.


Clean Water Restoration Act Reintroduced in the Senate:  On Thursday, April 2, Senator Feingold (D-WI) reintroduced the Clean Water Restoration Act (S. 787).  The Act would ensure protections for rivers, streams and wetlands, which were long protected under the Clean Water Act, but are now in jeopardy of losing protections as a result of two recent Supreme Court cases.  The confusing rulings in those cases, combined with subsequent Bush administration regulations, have resulted in federal agencies and some state authorities neglecting the protection of waters around the country.

The Act would clarify the broad jurisdictional scope of the Clean Water Act.  Feingold was joined by twenty-three Senate cosponsors, including Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chair of the Committee’s Water and Wildlife Subcommittee.  For more information on this issue, go to the Clean Water Network’s website.


Energy and Commerce Committee in Overdrive? House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Waxman (D-CA) this week joined Committee member Markey (D-MA) in releasing the first draft of a climate change bill, a major priority for the President and the Congressional Democratic leadership.  Even though the bill is not yet complete and still in draft form, the Chair has declared his intent to have it approved by the full Committee by the Memorial Day congressional recess.


At the same time, the Chairman has also indicated his aim to have a major FDA food safety overhaul bill completed and passed by the Committee prior to Memorial Day.  A draft bill for food safety is still in the works.  According to congressional staff, it will draw most heavily from a bill (HR 759) introduced by Committee members Dingell (D-MI), Stupak (D-MI), and Pallone (D-NJ).


Whether the Committee can get both bills entirely through the committee process in what will amount to just five weeks of legislative session remains to be seen.  Later this year Energy and Commerce will also be dealing with health care reform.


House Agriculture Starts Series of Hearings on Food Safety:  The House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, April 2, held the first of a planned series of hearings to review federal food safety systems.  The hearing primarily provided an opportunity for witnesses representing industry, including Chandler Keys, Head of Government and Industry Relations at JBS, the multinational meat conglomerate., David D. Dever, CEO and President of Pandol Brothers, a California fruit and vegetable compnay, and Tony DiMare, Vice President of DiMare Homestead, Inc., and DiMare Ruskin, Inc., a produce giant in Florida and South Carolina, to declare their support for strong federal food safety regulations.


Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) brought some welcome nuance to the proceedings when she asked what the point of view of small producers, who were not represented on the panel, might be.  “Could they continue to operate under the kind of legislation that has been proposed?” she asked, but Keys responded matter-of-factly that many small and mid-sized operators have quit the business.


The House Agriculture Committee has jurisdiction over USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees food safety laws and inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs.  The Energy and Commerce Committee (see story above) has jurisdiction over the Food and Drug Administration, which has food safety oversight of most other farm commodities.



Help Make USDA Marketing Programs Work for Sustainable Agriculture! USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has issued an invitation for Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) application reviewers.  The review process will begin in mid-May and conclude with a final meeting in Washington, DC in late June or early July.  If you are interested, please contact Carmen Humphrey (Branch Chief), Linda Browne, Karl Hacker, or Ricardo Krajewski in the Marketing Grants and Technical Assistance Branch at (202) 720-8317.

USDA’s Rural Business Cooperative Service is also looking for reviewers for this year’s crop of Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG).  The timeline will be approximately the same as the FMPP.  For more information, contact Susan Horst, Management and Program Analyst, susan.horst@wdc.usda.gov.

Stakeholder Input for REE Roadmap Requested
:  On Wednesday, April 1, the Research, Education, and Extension Office (REEO) announced in the Federal Register its solicitation for input from stakeholders on the Roadmap for Agricultural Research, Education, and Extension.


Mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill, the Roadmap will be the decision tool used to set priorities for public research and extension funding across USDA agencies.  In their input, stakeholders should respond to the six questions included in the announcement.  Comments are due by May 31, 2009.


In March, at the request of USDA, NSAC convened a meeting of 15 sustainable and organic agriculture advocates and researchers with the REEO staff to discuss the six roadmap questions.


Nominations Being Accepted for Advisory Committee on Biotech:  ARS is accepting nominations for qualified people to serve on the Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).  AC21 provides guidance to the USDA on issues related to agricultural biotechnology and examines the long-term impacts of biotechnology on US agriculture.  Terms last up to two years.  Nominations must be post marked no later than April 29, 2009.  For the Federal Register notice, click here.







Conference on Leveraging Farm Bill Dollars:  Last Friday and Saturday, March 27-28, the National Wildlife Federation hosted a meeting on the 2008 Farm Bill conservation programs at the Lied Arbor Day Conference Center in Nebraska.  The meeting was co-sponsored by the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League, and NSAC.

Highlights of the meeting included a keynote presentation by the newly appointed NRCS Chief Dave White and a presentation by Bill White of the Missouri Department of Conservation which showed how the Conservation Security Program was used to provide extensive increase of Northern Bobwhite Quail habitat on farms in the state’s bootheel region.  NSAC staffer Martha Noble made a presentation on addressing climate change with farm bill programs.

The meeting included an in-depth panel discussion on working with NRCS State Technical Committees, which included Traci Bruckner of the Center for Rural Affairs.  The National Wildlife Federation is establishing a State Technical Committee Network for its members and affiliates, similar to the NSAC State Technical Committee Network which has been in place since the 2002 Farm Bill.  For more information on participating in the NSAC State Technical Committee Network, contact Martha Noble at mnoble@sustainableagriculture.net.

USGS Releases New Analysis on Nutrient Loading in the Gulf of Mexico
:  On Tuesday, March 31, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released new information on the top watersheds in the Mississippi River Basin that deliver phosphorus and nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico.  The information is based on further refinements of the SPARROW (SPAtially Referenced Regressions On Watershed attributes) model for determining nutrient loading.  The analysis shows the 22 watersheds out of 150 analyzed that contribute the most phosphorus and the 61 watersheds out of 150 analyzed that contribute the most nitrogen.  The analysis is intended to help target watersheds that are contributing the Gulf of Mexico dead zone, a vast area of nutrient eutrophication and fisheries depletion which appears every summer in the Gulf.  The new data, with a link to an article on the analysis published in the Journal of American Water Resources Association, is posted on the web.


FarmLASTS Conference:  How land is acquired, stewarded and passed on will shape the future of U.S. agriculture.  Changing Lands, Changing Hands, a national conference to address these critically important issues, will be held June 10-11 in Denver, Colorado.  The event will bring over 60 speakers from across the country, including staff from NSAC.  Workshops will be offered in three tracks: Access and Tenure, Succession, and Conservation.  Topics range from land affordability to tenancy to transferring management.  The conference is hosted by the FarmLASTS Project, funded by a USDA/CSREES award to the University of Vermont.  For project and conference information, visit www.farmlasts.org.



Jackson Raises Stakes for Vilsack:  On March 31, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL) invited Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack to join him for lunch in one of the schools in his Chicago district.  Better yet, continued Rep. Jackson, would Secretary Vilsack commit to having the USDA Washington DC cafeteria serve the same foods that the schools in his district are serving?  Jackson suggested that this might be the only way to sensitize USDA staff to the poor quality of food schoolchildren are eating every day.  He continued that the time for studies and rulemakings are over, that it is time for USDA to lead by example and make quantitative and qualitative improvements in the school lunch program fast.

Categories: General Interest

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