March 7, 2009
The EQIP Comment Deadline Fast Approaching: You have until March 16th to tell USDA how to make EQIP work better for sustainable and organic farmers. As the Bush Administration left office, they issued an interim final rule to implement the 2008 Farm Bill changes to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The interim rule has very substantial problems that need to be fixed. An action alert with four major suggested talking points is available on the NSAC website. We urge all readers and member organizations to respond to the alert and to post the alert to your membership, lists, and blogs. As always, feel free to adapt the alert to your own style and letterhead, or just forward it as is – your choice. Thanks for all you do to stimulate citizen action!
FY 09 Appropriations Hanging by a Thread: Last week we reported the House of Representatives passed the omnibus appropriations bill for the fiscal year 2009, with the Senate vote this week. Well, this week just turned into next week, as the Senate could not muster the 60 votes need to reach cloture on the bill before the week came to a close.
A small handful of Democratic Senators have either declared they are voting no or are threatening to, while a small handful of Republican Senators are supporting the bill, but not necessarily supporting the cloture vote that must first be reached in order to get to the vote on final passage.
The lack of action this week necessitated congressional action on a continuing resolution to keep the government functioning through next Wednesday in hopes the Senate will finally pass the bill on Tuesday. Congress passed the new continuing resolution after wading through votes Monday night and a dozen more Republican amendments on Tuesday, many of them message amendments designed to be tough votes politically for conservative Democrats. If any of the amendments pass, the bill will be shut down and another continuing resolution though the rest of the fiscal year will be substituted, forcing all government programs to operate at out of date 2008 levels.
Even after the protracted debate on additional amendments, it is not a sure bet that there will be 60 votes for cloture, so Senator Kennedy has been asked to be in DC and not continue his recuperation in Florida as his vote may be critical to the outcome.
NSAC sent a letter to the Senate this week supporting passage of the bill. As we noted last week, with the sole exception of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, no farm bill mandatory programs for conservation, rural development, renewable energy, research, specialty crops and organic, and beginning and minority farmers were cut in the bill, despite earlier threats. Many of our priority discretionary programs for sustainable food and agriculture were either level funded at 2008 levels or received small increases.
Flap Over Obama Farm and Nutrition Budget Framework Continues: Following comments by USDA Secretary Vilsack to anti-hunger advocates on Monday, March 2 that seemed to pit farmers against hungry school children, the noise over the Obama budget proposal that in essence pays for $10 billion in increased spending for school feeding programs with a $10 billion cut in commodity program payments reached a fevered pitch this week. At this point, no farm state congressional proponents of commodity program reform are standing with the President and Secretary. In combination with the usual opposition from farm state backers of the status quo and the lack of a full embrace of the proposal by anti-hunger groups, this seems to suggest the proposal is dead on arrival or close to it.
NSAC continues to take a wait and see approach. We remain strongly supportive of one aspect of the Obama proposal, namely the $250,000 per farm per year hard cap on total subsidy payments. We also believe further reform is needed and is possible, though not in the specific formulation provided by the President.
The first step in the process of Congress reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act this year is the action on the congressional budget resolution. If, as expected, the budget resolution contains a reserve fund of some multi-billion dollar amount to provide for needed increased funding for school feeding programs, there will still be a need to find offsets to pay for the increase before the end of the year. It is not unreasonable to believe that some but not all of those offsets could be from reforms to the commodity programs, particularly from stricter limits on the amounts any one farm operation may receive.
We will also continue to remind the Administration that the ball is in their court, not Congress’s court, on one critical payment reform issue – the regulatory revision to the “actively engaged in farming” rules. Report language accompanying the 2008 Farm Bill instructed USDA to rewrite these rules. The Bush Administration issued an interim rule that made some modest reforms but left the biggest loopholes open. The Obama Administration is now in a position to write final regulations later this year to close the loopholes and thereby reduce mega-subsidies to mega-farms.
Senate Child Nutrition Hearing: On Wednesday, March 4, school and non-school based programs on a panel at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing presented the need for healthier foods and environments in their communities. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin suggested that healthier school lunch programs may be one of the best solutions for disease prevention and nutrition improvement, adding that improved financial reimbursements might be necessary to encourage schools to provide healthier meals. Panel members encouraged the creation of national dietary guidelines and the development of a single encompassing nutrition program instead of several programs to improve efficiency and streamline administrative tasks. Testimony from the hearing can be found at www.agriculture.senate.gov, click on hearings, and then click on March 4.
Senators Call for Farm Foreclosure Forbearance: As homeowners and businesses are struggling in the current economy, farmers across the country are also struggling to keep their homes and farms due to commodity price declines and rising production costs. To help reduce farm foreclosures, Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) are leading an effort urging the administration to require banks that received federal bailout funds to work with farmers to restructure loans. In a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack and Treasury Secretary Geithner, the Senators, along with 15 of their colleagues, called for these banks to restructure farm loans, much like conditions being developed for home loans to avoid foreclosure. More than 60 agriculture organizations across the country signed a letter of support.
GAO Testifies on Climate Offsets: On Thursday, March 5, John Stephenson, Director Natural Resources & Environment, Government Accountability Office, testified at a hearing on the role of offsets in climate change legislation before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. The GAO stressed that credible offsets (compensating for greenhouse gas emissions in one place by reductions elsewhere) must be truly “additional” and not just what would be expected under status quo scenarios. The GAO recommended that Congress establish clear rules about the types of projects, including agricultural ones, which can be used as offsets, with a margin for the inherent uncertainty associated with offset projects.
California Low Carbon Fuel Standard: On Thursday, March 4, California regulators issued a proposal to be voted on in April by the state Air Resources Board to restrict greenhouse gases produced by gasoline and diesel fuels. The proposal would force refineries to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuel by 10 percent by 2020 and increasing percentages thereafter. The rule would include indirect land use changes in calculating the total carbon footprint, a move that could potentially change corn-based ethanol from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.
An ethanol trade group released a letter signed by over one hundred scientists criticizing the proposal, but other energy researchers supported the effort. Patricia Monahan with the Union of Concerned Scientists was quoted in the LA Times saying “It’s a complicated issue, but the basic principle is simple. Set a performance standard, let fuels compete in the marketplace to meet the standard, and keep politics from distorting the science. It’s about reducing carbon, not picking winners and losers.”
NRCS Extends Application Deadlines for CIG and AWEP: The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has extended the deadline for submitting applications for national Conservation Innovation Grants to March 20, 2009. Grants will be awarded through a nationwide competitive process and can range up to three years in length. For more information, see the Conservation Innovation Grant website.
NRCS has also extended the application deadline for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program to April 1, 2009 and established new ranking criteria for the program – including energy conservation, renewable energy production, mitigating climate change and facilitating climate change adaptation, and carbon sequestration. Those who have already submitted an application to the program may submit a revised application that addresses these new ranking criteria. The extension notice has yet to be posted, but basic information on the program is available here.
Effective Date of Rural Development Guaranteed Loan Interim Final Rule Delayed: On Friday, March 6, USDA’s Rural Development agency announced that the effective date for the Rural Development Guaranteed Loans Interim Final Rule (IFR) is extended until June 1, 2009. The IFR includes the regulations for implementing the 2008 provisions for Business & Industry program loans for local food enterprises and the loan component of the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). The IFR was issued by the Bush administration on December 17, 2008. The announcement for the extension indicates that Rural Development wants additional time to complete a 60-day review of this last minute Bush administration regulation, a review of “midnight regulations” ordered by the Obama White House.
NSAC submitted comments opposing the IFR because it establishes a confusing two-tiered approach for loan applications and also ignores important components of the programs. The NSAC comments are available here.
Views Solicited on Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center: The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CREES) is soliciting public comments until April 2, 2009 for their new competitive grants program called the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development Center Program. The Center, authorized and funded by the 2008 Farm Bill, aims to increase access to healthy affordable foods to underserved communities by awarding sub-grants for feasibility studies. The Center will develop and provide technical assistance and information regarding best practices for processing and marketing locally produced agricultural products and increasing the availability of these products in underserved communities. Instructions for submitting stakeholder comments are available here.
EU Imposes Tariffs on U.S. Biodiesel: On Tuesday, March 2, the EU announced that the EU Commission will act next week to impose tariffs on U.S. biodiesel imported into Europe. The tariffs will range from $328 to $511 per ton of biodiesel and will be imposed on biodiesel produced by Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Imperium Renewables, Green Earth Energy Fuels, World Energy Alternatives and Peter Cremer North America. According to a report in the International Herald Tribune, the amount of the tariff will vary with the type and amount of biodiesel produced by each company and the estimated amount of subsidies and other support provided to each company by the U.S. government. The EU Commission has the authority to impose a 6-month provisional tariff which could subsequently be extended up to five years.
Ecosystem Services Forum: On Thursday, March 5, the World Resources Institute hosted a conference on “Advancing Ecosystem Services Support for Agriculture.” Jim Boyd of Resources for the Future began the program putting forth the central challenge: How can agriculture be pursued in a way that enhances ecosystem services, including wildlife habitat, biodiversity, open space, flood prevention, carbon sequestration, and groundwater recharge? An obstacle to progress in creating efficient markets for environmental services that many speakers pointed out is the lack of extensive data tracking the results of conservation programs, as well as the challenge of quantifying the value of environmental public goods.
Carl Lucero of the USDA’s newly created Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets explained the mission of OESM as promoting conservation and technical assistance, and addressing the backlog of demand for these services. OESM co-sponsors www.ecosystemmarketplace.com, which provides information on market-based conservation programs, and OESM is developing a handbook on environmental credit-trading, which should be available in about a month.
David Primozich provided an overview of his organization, the Willamette Partnership, a non-profit in Oregon working to promote business models that make restoration and stewardship profitable. He explained that existing regulations are too narrowly focused on each of the numerous factors that contribute to ecological quality, and thus fail to capture potential synergies, and may sometimes even work at cross-purposes. He is working to put in place an “integrated multi-credit ecological accounting agency.”
IAASTD Discusses its Assessment of Global Agriculture: On Monday, March 2, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) held an event in D.C. to discuss the findings from a three year worldwide assessment of agricultural knowledge and practices. This was the first official presentation of the findings in the United States since the report was published. Dr. Robert Watson, Director of IAASTD, said he thinks the main challenge for sound global food policy now is understanding what small farmers want, and structuring ways to pay them for providing ecological services. More information about IAASTD and the 7-volume report is available at www.agassessment.org.
USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum 2009: USDA held its 2009 Agricultural Outlook Forum on February 26 and 27. USDA Secretary Vilsack gave the keynote address, discussing his own political career in Iowa, and outlining President Obama’s instructions to his agency. Vilsack expressed his concern at the 2007 Census of Agriculture showing shrinking numbers of medium-sized farms, and said he has asked his staff to accelerate the rule-making process for CSP.
A highlight of the Forum was a panel on USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) program, which featured two farmers that have used SARE grants to support their innovative techniques for sustainable farming. Karl Kupers has transitioned from crop producer to wheat flour marketer, a process stimulated by a SARE grant and fostered by thinking outside the box. Claud Evans has developed innovative techniques for managing pasture-raised goat herds in the difficult conditions of central Oklahoma. With help from a SARE producer grant, Evans initiated a three-year study that compared a variety of techniques to obtain cashmere fiber, and he invented tools to harvest cashmere fiber more efficiently and with less trauma to the goats than conventional shearing provides.
The two farmers together with two educators also on the panel, along with NSAC’s Ferd Hoefner, later had a private meeting with Secretary Vilsack to discuss the SARE program and their individual projects and interests in more detail.
Categories: General Interest