NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – May 26-29, 2009

June 1, 2009


Organic Initiative Sign-Up Extended in Some States:  The Natural Resources Conservation Service has given States the option to extend their sign-up period for Organic Initiative funds beyond the initial deadline of May 29th.  NSAC has posted a new alert for producers on state extensions.
The Organic Initiative is a special $50 million pool of funding under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).  The Initiative will provide payments and technical assistance to transitioning and existing organic farmers who adopt NRCS conservation practices used in organic production systems.  Sign up began on May 11th.
The best way to find out if your State has extended is to call your state office.  Find contact information for your state office.

If your State has not extended, ask them to consider doing so.   The National NRCS office has issued this list of States that have extended their deadline including AK, CO, DE, FL, IN, KY,  LA, ME, MD, MN, NE, NV, OH, OR, SD, VA, and WI.   We have also had reports that PA, HI, MT, SC and NC have extended.   Again, the best way to find out for sure if your state has extended is to call your State office.


100 Days, 100 Projects and One Big Missed Opportunity:  On Wednesday, President Obama announced that in the 100 days since signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (also known as the stimulus bill) into law more than 150,000 jobs have been created or saved by the $112 billion in Recovery Act funds that have been obligated.   The White House announcement highlighted 100 specific funded projects.  The next day USDA Secretary Vilsack announced almost $143 million in water and environmental projects funded with stimulus dollars.

NSAC is disappointed that at the same time these announcements are being made nowhere on the www.recovery.gov, www.usda.gov, or www.rurdev.usda.gov websites is there any mention of the $250 million in guaranteed loans available ($125 million from the stimulus bill and the rest from regular appropriations) to develop local and regional food system enterprises set aside within the $3 billion in  Recovery Act funding provided to the Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program.  This $250 million could kick start local food business development boosting farm income, creating jobs, reinvigorating local infrastructure, providing better food for consumers, and cutting transportation-based pollution.  Furthermore, the local food system funds roll back into the general B&I loan fund if not applied for, so promotion and outreach by USDA is critical right now, without further delay.

Letter to Vilsack about Office of Advocacy and Outreach:  On Thursday, May 28, the Rural Coalition delivered a letter to Secretary Vilsack on behalf of NSAC and its members and the members of the Farm and Food Policy Project’s Diversity Initiative, urging him to move swiftly to establish the new Office of Advocacy Outreach, which NSAC and the Diversity Initiative were directly involved with developing in the 2008 Farm Bill.  The Office of Advocacy and Outreach would provide policy and program oversight, coordination and development to benefit small farmers, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and farmworkers.  We will report on the response to this letter in these pages in coming weeks, hopefully with the good news that the office is being put in place consistent with our recommendations.

Obama Responds to Governors’ Biofuels Letter:  On Wednesday, May 27, President Obama responded to a letter sent by the Governors’ Biofuels Coalition in February citing their concerns about the corn ethanol market. The Coalition’s letter was signed by 35 governors and laid out an agenda to increase the use of corn ethanol.  It called for President Obama to create an interagency task force with USDA, EPA and the Department of Energy to resolve the debate over lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels; to immediately approve the marketing of E13 gasoline (13% ethanol blended with gasoline); to increase production and marketing of flex fuel vehicles engineered to run on E85 fuel blends; and to explore “new policy options to improve sustainability” of corn ethanol and advanced biofuel production.

President Obama’s letter in response noted that his Presidential Directive on Biofuels, issued May 5, established the Interagency Task Force and charged it with developing policies to increase flexible fuel vehicle production and assist in retail marketing efforts while also taking into consideration land use, habitat conservation, crop management practices, water efficiency and water quality, and lifecycle assessments of greenhouse gas emissions.  His letter added general support for corn ethanol by stating, “My administration is committed to moving as quickly as possible to commercialize an array of emerging cellulosic technologies so that tomorrow’s biofuels will be produced from sustainable biomass feedstocks and waste materials rather than corn.  But this transition will be successful only if the first-generation biofuels industry remains viable in the near term.”  He did not, however, commit to immediately approving E13 blended gasoline or mention that EPA is currently considering a petition to raise the blend available in the market to E15.

Waxman Food Safety Bill Introduced:  On Wednesday, May 27, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Henry Waxman (CA-30) released a discussion draft of his food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009.  The bill is largely based on provisions in H.R. 259, the Food and Drug Administration Globalization Act of 2009, introduced by Representative Dingell earlier this year.  House Energy and Commerce Committee staff has said they plan to mark up the Waxman food safety bill and report it out of Committee during the month of June and prior to the July 4 congressional recess.


NRCS Announces Meetings to Gather Public Input on Conservation Evaluation and Direction:  On Thursday, May 28, the Natural Resources Conservation Service announced in the Federal Register that it will hold public meetings to gather stakeholder input on as it puts together the 2011 iteration of a strategic assessment and planning process through the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act (RCA).  The RCA was scheduled to expire last year, but NSAC led the charge to have the RCA process extended and strengthened in the 2008 Farm Bill.  The program has now been extended through at least 2018.  The periodic RCA reports are intended to help drive national farm conservation policies and program directions.  USDA is seeking public comments on conservation priorities, program approaches, future conservation needs, and opportunities to improve the appraisal process.

The meetings will be held in Bismarck, ND and Albuquerque, NM on June 15 and in Solomons, MD on July 27.  For more details on the meetings, see the Federal Register notice.

Rural Energy for America Program Grants and Loans:  On Tuesday, May 26, USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service issued the Notice of Solicitations of Applications for Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grants and loans.  Completed applications must be received by July 31, 2009 at the appropriate state USDA Rural Development office.  REAP is designed to assist farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses that are able to demonstrate financial need with renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements.  Farmers and ranchers who gain 50% or more of their gross income from the agricultural operations are eligible.  Small businesses that are located in a rural area can also apply, as well as rural electric cooperatives.

The 2008 Farm Bill also provides for a new grant category for feasibility studies.  Twenty percent of REAP funding is set aside for grants of $20,000 or less.  USDA will also add 10 points to the application score for these projects.  In addition, small agricultural producers and very small rural businesses receive extra points in the application ranking process.

Maximum grant awards and loan guarantees are:

  • Renewable energy system grants – $500,000 or 25% of eligible project costs, whichever is less.
  • Energy efficiency grants – $250,000 or 25% of eligible project costs, whichever is less.
  • Loan guarantees – $25 million or 75% of eligible project costs, whichever is less.
  • Feasibility studies – $50,000 or 25% of eligible study costs, whichever is less.

Note also that the Rural Development agency has posted on its website a chart comparing the Business & Industry Guaranteed Loan Program with REAP to allow applicants to determine which program is most appropriate for their project.  NSAC also recommends that you check out the Environmental Law and Policy’s Farm Energy webpage, a good source of information on USDA’s energy programs.

ERS Releases Data Set with Organic Prices:  On Thursday, May 28, the Economic Research Service released a data set that provides farmgate and wholesale prices for certain organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, wholesale prices of organic and conventional eggs and broilers, and f.o.b. and spot prices for organic grain and feedstuffs.

Canales Appointed as RBCS Head:  On Wednesday, May 27, Secretary Vilsack named Judith Canales Administrator for Rural Business and Cooperative Service, one of the three major rural development agencies.  Most recently the Executive Director of the Maverick County Development Corporation in Eagle Pass, TX, Canales was Deputy State Director for Texas Rural Development and later Acting Associate Administrator for Rural Business and Cooperative Services in DC during the Clinton Administration.  Canales has served as the Legislative Representative for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Executive Director of the International Hispanic Network.

Also on Wednesday the 27th, the Secretary named Dr. Alma Cobb Hobbs and Robin Heard as deputy assistant secretaries for Administration under Assistant Secretary Pearlie Reed.  Hobbs is Dean of Agriculture at Virginia State University and has previously served as special assistant for diversity and outreach in the office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and also as a deputy administrator with the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service.  Heard most recently has served as the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, but began her USDA career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Some Big USDA Slots Still Remain to be Announced:  Please note that we continue to update a our website with a complete listing of political appointments made to date at USDA.  The number of remaining top slots is rapidly closing, with the biggest remaining unfilled positions including:

  • the Under Secretary for Food Safety, Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, and Administrator of the Food Safety Inspection Service
  • one of the two Deputy Under Secretaries for Natural Resources and the Environment
  • both of the 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.

Rural Development Common Platform Delayed, Again:  The effective date of the implementation of what NSAC deems to be a defective unified guaranteed loan platform has been pushed back, again, until October 1, 2009.  The notice appeared in the Federal Register on Friday, May 29.The effective date of the interim rule, first published on December 17, 2008, has now been delayed three times.  The stated reasons for the delay now are pressures caused by processing of the stimulus package, additional time to train staff and lenders, and more time to consider comments received on the implementation.  While there is not direct reference to actually changing the rule, we understand that Rural Development is taking a hard look at major revisions.

USDA Seminar on Sustainability at Land-Grant Universities:  On Wednesday, May 27, 2009, USDA’s Council for Sustainable Development and Science for Sustainability at CSREES presented a seminar on “Applied Sustainability & Life Cycle Analysis.”  Leaders from land-grant universities discussed the place of sustainability in their institutions’ programming, and ways they are advising commercial interests like Wal-Mart to incorporate principles and methodologies of sustainability into their decisions and plans.

Mark Cochran, Associate Vice President for Agriculture Research for the University of Arkansas discussed what he sees as the importance of corporate initiatives for the codification and adoption of sustainability metrics in the commercial and agricultural sectors of the global economy.  He cited as examples The Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, Leonardo Academy’s efforts to create a Sustainable Agriculture Practice Standard, the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops, and Wal-Mart’s policies on conservation and sustainability in the products it chooses to sell at its stores.  Cochran described universities as having a supporting role in formulating metrics, evaluating best practices, and developing links to big retailers for local producers.

Molly Jahn, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2006, gave a general overview of the place of sustainability in the mission of land-grant universities.  She emphasized that issues of sustainability are being taken up by many programs throughout the College and sister institutions in the UW system, but did not offer a clear direction for further development, and said that UW has been “slow to formalize sustainability.”

Marty Matlock, Director of the University of Arkansas’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, and Jonathan Johnson, Executive Director of the Applied Sustainability Center in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, discussed the conceptual simplicity, and extreme complexity in practice, of Life Cycle Analysis for assessing externalities created by the enormous array of business decisions made by large retailers.  Johnson was quick to admit the “audacity” of Wal-Mart’s interest in developing a simple metric to gauge the social impacts of its business decisions, yet seemed to regard it as a worthy ideal.

Johnson portrayed Wal-Mart’s notion of sustainability as comprising economic, social, and environmental considerations.  An audience member asked an insightful question:  Had Wal-Mart’s willingness to consider its own environmental and social impacts led them to re-define in any way their definition of, or relationship to, profit?  Johnson was clear that the business’s initiatives in environmental and social sustainability have only one aim:  improving long-term efficiency so as to increase company profits.

John Shutske, an extension officer at the University of Wisconsin, suggested that open source databases might provide a useful medium for the development of sustainability standards, since the transparency of such databases offers the public a window into the process through which standards are developed, not simply a “black-box result.”


EWG Issues Report on EQIP in the Mississippi River Border States:  The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released a new report entitled Seizing a Watershed Moment: Making EQIP Work for Water Quality in 10 Mississippi River Border States.  The report examines the effectiveness of EQIP in reducing sediment and nutrient pollution in each of the 10 states, with useful information about EQIP in each of the states.
The report makes several major recommendations:

  • NRCS should set clear and specific pollution reduction goals and timelines for EQIP
  • 60 percent of EQIP dollars should be used for water quality multi-farmer projects
  • states should make greater use of special state-level, resource-specific funding pools
  • states should allocate funding based more on environmental factors such as areas with highly impaired waters or concentrated numbers of livestock
  • 40 percent of EQIP dollars should target highest priority resource concerns, and
  • farmers who can do the most to solve identified problems or who are located in the most critical areas should be ranked highest in the EQIP selection process.

The report does not mention the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative, the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program, or Conservation Innovation Grants, all of which utilize EQIP funding to promote multi-farmer projects.  It is not clear if the 60 percent recommendation is inclusive or exclusive of those special project-based programs, or whether having such a large percent of the total program project-based would require new entities on the ground to organize and administer the projects.  It is also not clear if following the EWG recommendations would lead more states to focus more funding on the biggest polluters or riskiest operations or not, though that could be one interpretation.

NSAC has recommended to USDA that EQIP use a similar process to the Conservation Stewardship Program in having each watershed in each state designate priority resource concerns that then become the focus of the program in that location.

Categories: General Interest

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