NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – November 7, 2008

November 7, 2008


Presidential Transition Team Project: The Presidential Elections are over! Now is the time to prepare for the Obama Administration so that our key agricultural issues are considered and acted upon in the first term.

SAC is taking the lead in putting together a briefing book with a set of recommendations and key policy proposals for the presidential transition team. Please download this form with more information about the project and send your top recommendations to the SAC staff by November 14.

This week, Jim Worstell of SAC member group, Delta, Land, and Community, submitted a recommendation regarding the appointed Rural Development Directors for each state. We have posted Jim’s idea on the SAC blog, entitled Transforming Rural Development in the Obama Administration. Check it out and send us comments!



Obama Administration: With Tuesday’s historic election over, attention is turning to the Presidential Transition Team and what an Obama Administration will mean for U.S. agriculture. According to President-elect Obama’s website and the rural agenda laid out on the new Transition Team website, President-elect Obama has seven main priorities – many of which have been long-standing priorities of SAC and were included in our 2008 Farm Bill platform: a $250,000 limit on commodity payments and closing of loopholes; a ban on packer ownership of livestock; strict regulations on pollution from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs); expansion of organic certification cost share, reform of crop insurance so that it does not penalize organic farmers, and promotion of regional food systems; training programs and tax incentives for beginning farmers and ranchers; greater incentives for sustainable agriculture and protection of wetlands, grasslands, and forests; and implementation of mandatory country-of-origin-labeling (COOL).

SAC is now working on policy recommendations for the Obama Transition Team (see in “Special Announcement” above). We expect members of the USDA Transition Team to be announced in the next few weeks and plan to deliver a briefing book with final policy recommendations to them by the end of the year, early next year. Given the agriculture and rural agenda of President-elect Obama, SAC believes the rational choice for a Secretary of Agriculture appointment would be someone with a proven record of standing up for these issues.

Agriculture Committee Seats: Overall, the Senate gained at least six more Democrats (three races are still undecided in Georgia, Minnesota, and Alaska) during Tuesday’s election – still shy of the veto-proof 60 majority. The House gained at least nineteen more Democrats (eight races are still undecided).

Senate Agriculture Committee

All of the Democrat Members of the Senate Agriculture Committee who were up won reelection. Two of the Republicans on the Senate Agriculture Committee—Senator Coleman (R-MN) and the Ranking Republican Senator Chambliss (R-GA)—are still in a tossup.

Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and member of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), easily defended his seat. Senator Harkin has been a long-time champion of sustainable agriculture issues, including most prominently his efforts to create and protect the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Other Agriculture Committee Member incumbents who won were Max Baucus (D-Montana) and on the Republican side, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), and Pat Roberts (R-Kansas). Senators Cochran and McConnell also serve on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In a surprising turn of events, Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia) is facing a possible four-week runoff with Democrat Jim Martin for the U.S. Senate seat in Georgia. Neither candidate has the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid the run-off, though Friday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Chambliss is just 16,000 votes shy of the target. Should a runoff be required and should he lose, Pat Roberts (R-KS) would be his most likely successor as Ranking Member.

Another Republican Senate Agriculture Committee member in a tossup is incumbent Senator Norm Coleman from Minnesota who is facing down Al Franken. Coleman is said to be edging out Franken, but with the margin around 236 votes, it falls well within the threshold for automatic recount – this latest number is from Friday’s Star Tribune. The final count may not be known until December.

House Agriculture Committee

Seven of the unusually large class of ten freshman Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee retained their seats, and all but two of those seven received more than 60 percent of the vote: Reps. Steve Kagen (D-Wisconsin) and Zach Space (D-Ohio). Representative Kagen was one of several Agriculture Committee Freshmen that championed some of SAC’s issues during the recent farm bill fight. In particular, Kagen fought hard to win support for local food systems provisions including increased funding for the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program. Other strong SAC issue supporters winning re-election from the freshman class were Tim Walz (Minnesota) and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York).

While House Democrats emerged from last night’s elections with a larger majority, three of the Democratic incumbents who got knocked off were (former) members of the House Agriculture Committee: Reps. Nick Lampson (Texas), Nancy Boyda (Kansas), and Tim Mahoney (Florida).

Boyda, in particular, was supportive of sustainable agriculture and during the recent Farm Bill fight. Boyda helped with the ultimately successful effort to turn the discretionary authorization of the Community Food Project Grants into mandatory funding. She was also an outspoken opponent of market consolidation in the livestock industry and co-authored a letter opposing JBS Acquisitions—a Brazilian beef company and third largest beef processor in the U.S.—acquiring two U.S. beef processors.

Five Republican Members of the House Agriculture Committee will also be packing their bags: Reps. Robin Hayes (R-North Carolina), Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colorado), Randy Kuhl (R-New York), and Tim Walberg (R-Michigan) plus Terry Everett (R-Alabama) who retired. Current Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte easily won re-election, but is term limited out of the job as lead Republican on Agriculture, a slot that is now widely rumored to be going to Oklahoma’s Frank Lucas.

All of the members of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee won reelection, but House Republican Ray LaHood will be retiring and therefore stepping down.

Other Musical Chairs: On Friday afternoon, Senator Byrd (D-WV) announced that he will step down as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee – a committee which controls about one-third of all federal spending. Byrd was under pressure to step down because of concern that at age 90, he may not be up to the tremendous amount of work required to deal with two wars and a budget deficit approaching $1 trillion. Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) – age 84 – is in line to succeed as chair.

On Thursday, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) said that he would remain as chair of the Banking Committee, turning down the post of Foreign Relations Chairman that Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) will be vacating. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) is expected to take over the chair position.

With Congressman Rahm Emanual (D-IL) agreeing to be President-elect Obama’s chief of staff, the House Democratic Caucus Chairman position is open. Both Reps. Van Hollen (D-MD) and John Larson (D-CT) are maneuvering for the position. Rep. Van Hollen is widely expected to get the position.

House Minority Whip, Roy Blunt (R-MO) announced on Thursday that he will be stepping down. Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) is expected to take over.

Finally, in a clash of the titans, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), long-time number two Democrat on House Energy and Commerce (which has jurisdiction on energy, health care, climate, clean air, nuclear power, Superfund, and many other hot button issues) is challenging long-time chairman John Dingell (D-MI) for the leadership of that super-committee.

Economic Recovery Bill Looms: The dust is still not settled on just how congressional Democrats, together with President-elect Obama’s transition team, will proceed with their planned economic recovery package. Both timing and the size of the package are still under review.

On Friday, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) suggested the lame duck session of Congress which starts November 17 would not deal with the new stimulus bill unless there are new signs that President Bush would actually sign it into law. Earlier in the week, the White House press secretary gave the draft bill a highly negative review. By contrast, on Friday, President-elect Obama said “a fiscal stimulus plan that will jump-start economic growth is long overdue – and we should get it done.”

Three key questions about the bill are on our minds. First, will the bill include anything to specifically help troubled rural economies? We are supporting funding for rural micro-enterprise assistance and value-added producer grants to be included.

Second, will the bill go beyond emergency food stamp program funding to also include supplemental funding for the WIC feeding program? This is critical in its own right so that cuts are not made just as food prices escalate and the economy increases participation levels, but also because if funding is not included in the economic recovery bill, it will be very difficult for Congress to fund food and agriculture priorities in the regular appropriations bill which will be before Congress in February.

Third, with credit becoming harder for farmers to secure, will Congress make the necessary increases to the direct and guaranteed farm operating loan programs in advance of the upcoming crop year?

SAC will be pushing all three issues in the coming weeks.


USDA Musical Chair Prelude to New Administration: With a new President Obama Administration waiting in the wings, USDA officials have begun a game of musical chairs. At the Marketing and Regulatory Division, Agricultural Marketing Service Lloyd Day stepped down and was replaced by Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) head James Link. Terry van Doren, who had served as advisor to the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulation, stepped into the GIPSA Administrator position for the final few months. On Wednesday, USDA announced that Under Secretary for Rural Development Thomas Dorr would resign on December 1. Earlier in the fall, Under Secretary for Food Safety Richard Raymond resigned to take a private sector position.

Amended Farm Bill Provisions and Sign-up Deadlines: On Friday, USDA announced a new sign-up deadline for 2008 Direct and Counter-cyclical Payment program for farms with crop acreage bases10 acres or less. The new enrollment deadline, now extended to November 26, 2008, only applies to farms with crop acreage bases of 10 acres or less, which were previously excluded from the program before President Bush signed a bill on October 13, 2008 that made the minimum acreage provision inapplicable in the 2008 crop year. Eligible producers may sign up at any FSA office or enroll on the FSA website.

The Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE) program — the new permanent disaster program from the 2008 Farm Bill — was also amended by the bill. Producers with crops that had 2009 crop insurance sales closing dates before Aug. 14, 2008, may now pay a fee (payable at their local FSA office) through Jan. 12, 2009, to participate in SURE.

Grants to Study Grazing Conservation Practices: Last week, on October 30, USDA announced awards of more than $1.8 million in FY2008 grants under the Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) partnership between the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). CEAP is a multi-agency effort to scientifically quantify the environmental benefits of conservation practices used by private landowners participating in USDA and other conservation programs. The FY2008 CEAP grants focus on conservation practices on grazing lands, the single largest land type in the United States.

The FY2008 grants were awarded to: University of Arizona, $598,000; Texas A&M University, $647,000; and Washington State University, $621,000. Read additional information on CEAP, including other CSREES competitively awarded watershed studies.

USDA Releasing Line of Drought Resistant Soybeans: On Thursday, a team of researchers at the Agricultural Research Service Soybean and Nitrogen Fixation Research Unit in North Carolina announced that it would be releasing five conventionally bred lines of drought resistant soybeans. The research team is conducting the final steps of technical and regulatory reviews on the new lines.

The new drought resistant lines are part of long-term breeding work to transfer slow wilting characteristics from Asian landraces into U.S.-adapted soybean varieties. As the team gets the slow-wilting trait into high-yielding lines, they share these publicly available lines with seed companies and soybean breeders who can further develop high-yield soybean varieties adapted to dry summer conditions in all soybean growing areas.

Team Leader Thomas Carter describes this work as “smart classic breeding.” He also emphasized that this research into drought-resistant soybean seeds faces a dilemma: with its limited budget for classic breeding, the ARS is unable test drought-resistant lines on the same scale possible for agribusiness but at the same time industry is not really set up to test drought tolerance. Read more information on the Agricultural Research Service research into drought-resistant soybeans.

SAC advocated for a 2008 Farm Bill to provide new priorities and resources for conventional (classic) breeding in USDA programs and we will continue efforts to ensure that the results are publicly available.


EPA Administrator Signs Off on Final CAFO Rule: Last Friday, as a Halloween” trick” for the environment and public health, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson signed a revised Clean Water Act final regulation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) permits and effluent limitations. EPA revised the CAFO regulations in response to legal challenges to a 2003 CAFO final regulation, brought in the case Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. v. EPA by both environmental organizations and the CAFO sector.

The revision opens a gaping hole in the 2003 regulation by allowing a CAFO, no matter how large, to self-certify that the CAFO does not “intend” to discharge to the waters of the U.S. EPA ignored the recommendation of the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals to establish a regulatory presumption that large-scale CAFOs discharge pollutants. The presumption would have required that a large-scale CAFO demonstrate to regulatory authorities that it is designed and can be operated to avoid all discharges of regulated pollutants.

EPA also rejected making improvements in technology that reduce harmful bacteria and other pathogens that threaten public health, a problem aggravated by the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens in CAFOs. The revised rule does include one improvement required in Waterkeeper — that a CAFO nutrient management plan must be included in a Clean Water Act permit for the CAFO and made available for public review and comment.

EPA is expected publish the revised final regulation in the Federal Register before the end of November. In the meantime, a copy of the unofficial version of the revised regulation is posted on the EPA website. You can also register on the website for a November 19 EPA webcast about the revised CAFO regulation.

SAC will be urging the new Administration to revisit this rulemaking on an expedited basis.


Two Articles on High Food Costs in Amber Waves: The November 2008 issue of Amber Waves, a publication of the USDA’s Economic Research Service features two articles on the rising cost of food and the associated impact. The first article “Fluctuating Food Commodity Prices: A Complex Issue With No Easy Answers” finds that prices for food commodities have increased sharply over the past 2 years. Rising food demand in developing countries has outpaced a general slowdown in production growth of major food commodities and demand for global stockholding has fallen. The article cites other factors behind higher food prices including increased energy costs, demand for biofuels, a weakening U.S. dollar, adverse weather, and policy responses by some major exporting and importing countries.

The second article “Can Low-Income Americans Afford a Healthy Diet” discusses how low-income households tend to consume less nutritious diets than other households, and do not meet Federal recommendations for consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. Relative to other households, the article states that low-income households must allocate higher shares of their income and time to food if they want to consume palatable, nutritious meals.

Categories: General Interest

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