NSAC's Blog

Weekly Update – October 26, 2009

October 26, 2009


Time Running Out to Comment on the Conservation Stewardship Program!!
Time is running out for sustainable and organic farming advocates to submit comments to shape the implementation of the new Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the Nation’s first and only green payments program.   In particular, USDA needs to get a loud and clear message that resource-conserving crop rotations, management-intensive rotational grazing and organic crop and livestock systems should receive high ranking and payment points under the CSP.  These systems deliver multiple environmental benefits and should earn high rewards.  You have until Wednesday October 28th to submit your comment. Additional talking points and an alert for circulation can be found here.


HELP on Food Safety:  The full Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee had its first food safety hearing on Thursday, October 22.  The anticipated focus of pending Senate action will be the Food Safety Modernization Act (S 510) introduced by Senator Durbin (D-IL) and cosponsored by HELP Committee members Gregg (R-NH), Dodd (D-CT), Burr (R-NC), and Isakson (R-GA).  HELP Chairman Harkin (D-IA) began the hearing by recognizing Senator Durbin’s long commitment to the issue of food safety and pledging to move the bill as quickly as possible, saying as the hearing ended that he hoped to have a bill on the President’s desk by the end of the year.  Most observers think the end of the year goal is unlikely, though not completely outside the realm of possibility.

We noted in last week’s edition of the Weekly Update that Russell Libby, executive director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners, would be testifying at the hearing on behalf of NSAC and small and mid-size farm interests.  However, shortly after we went to press, we found out the Libby had been uninvited, the casualty evidently of a veto by Senator Enzi (R-WY), the committee’s ranking minority member.  As a result, the committee sadly heard only from the agency, from industry, and from consumers.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in her first appearance before the Committee, outlined the Administration’s three priorities for improving the Nation’s food safety: concentrating on prevention, strengthening surveillance and enforcement, and improving response and recovery.  She noted that FDA would like increased legislative authority to achieve the goals including “enhanced ability to use resources flexibly to target food at the highest risk.”

Hamburg was critical of S 510 in several respects.  The Administration wants the bill changed to provide FDA explicit authority to access food records during routine inspections as is the case for FDA drug inspections and USDA meat inspections.

She and the Administration also support a user fee to help pay for the additional inspections that would result from implementation of the bill.  Unlike the House-passed bill, S 510 does not include fees but would rather pay for the bill entirely by congressional appropriations; the House bill by contrast is three-quarters paid for by appropriations and one-quarter by the fee.  The House bill’s $500 flat tax per facility is opposed by NSAC as regressive placing an undo burden on small scale family farms and not properly reflecting the costs of inspecting large farms and complex processing facilites.

Hamburg noted that she and FDA food safety adviser Michael Taylor have been visiting farms in different states around the country and “are learning more in the field about the concerns of farmers big and small.”

There was a confusing discussion about farmers who direct market their product being exempted from regulation.  Under current regulations, farmers who engage in any on-farm processing, even very minimal processing, are “facilities” which are then regulated by FDA.  However, if more than 50% of the processed product is sold directly to consumers, then the entire farm is exempt from regulation.  Under questioning, Hamburg indicated that farmers selling directly intrastate are exempt but not interstate.  That distinction does not appear in FDA regulation, nor in the House-passed bill which intends to codify current FDA regulations on this point.  NSAC hopes the agency will issue a clarification of the confusing statement.

Senator Merkley (D-OR) asked whether the bill’s provisions would be prejudicial to small and organic farms getting different directions from different agencies.  Dr. Hamburg recognized that this was an important concern and maintained the unique needs and circumstances of the diverse agricultural community could be achieved through the bill.

Thomas Stenzel, President of United Fresh Produce Association, spoke in favor of commodity-specific standards that would be consistent across the country and on farms of all sizes and production methods, explicitly rejecting the argument that smaller farms or organic operations should be treated differently.  He did, however, support reduced fees for less affluent farmers.  NSAC will continue fighting for alternatives that work for small and mid-sized family farms and that are consistent with sustainable and organic farming systems.

Rural Development Hearing:  On Wednesday, October 21, Judy Canales, Administrator of USDA’s Rural Development Business and Cooperative Programs, reported to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Rural Development that significant progress is being made in moving American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds out to rural communities and that those funds are preserving and creating jobs.

Canales pointed to an announcement made by the USDA earlier that day that 20 projects had been approved for $71.7 million in Business and Industry (B&I) loan guarantees.

When asked by Rep. Conaway (R-TX) how many of those loans were for local and regional food system development projects, Canales did not know the answer.  NSAC worked on a successful 2008 Farm Bill provision to have 5% of the B & I guarantees reserved for regional food system businesses and the program has been one of tools Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan has showcased as part of the Department’s Know Your Farmer Know Your Food effort.

Canales announced that permanent regulations for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) should be published in January 2010 and will be issued in tandem with the Notice of Funds Available (NOFA).  Proposed rules for RMAP were issued on October 7, 2009 and have a 45 day comment period.  Canales explained that the quick turnaround time on the rules, comments, and NOFA was a result of a new “good and aggressive relationship with [the Office of Management and Budget].”

Committee members were interested in hearing about how the USDA is making its programs more accessible in this time of economic downturn, asking particularly whether the Agency was easing restrictions on matching funds required for most grants and whether it was considering simplified forms.  Canales pledged to “be creative” to make sure their funds are doing all they can to stimulate rural economies.

Loan Suspension Petition Delivered to USDA:  On Tuesday, October 20, the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment delivered a letter with over 25,000 signatures to USDA Secretary Vilsack calling for a suspension of Farm Service Agency direct and guaranteed loans to new or expanding specialized hog and poultry facilities.  A CFFE press release with a weblink to the petition letter and its cover letter are posted on the Land Stewardship Project website.

CFFE based its request on the reasoning that FSA direct and guaranteed loans, which amounted to an estimated $264 million for FY2008 and FY2009, contribute to an increase in hog and poultry production in the face of severely depressed prices for hog and poultry growers.

North American Pollinator Protection Campaign Conference:  On Thursday, October 23, the Chair of the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project, Rudy Rice, spoke at the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign Conference in Washington, DC.  Rice has been a conservationist and grain farmer for over three decades, and has recently become a spokesperson about the importance of native pollinators.  Rice’s presentation focused on the honey bee, the most commonly used pollinator, which is in sharp decline.  In an effort to reverse this trend, the Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project has formed the Agricultural Pollination Alliance.  Rice urged everyone to learn more about the Alliance, and to integrate native pollinator habitat into their farmland.  For more information, please see the website at www.agpollinators.org


Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Climate Change Hearing:  This week, October 27, 28, and 29, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold its first set of hearings to review provisions of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S.1733).  The roster of panelists for each hearing is here.  The bill is companion legislation to H.R. 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which passed the House of Representatives in June.

The hearings are the first of several expected in Senate committees to review Climate legislation.  A total of five Senate Committees will be contributing to the final version of a Senate climate change bill.  Senator Deborah Stabenow (D-MI) is the lead for drafting the Senate Agriculture Committee’s contribution to the bill, which focuses on agricultural activities that could be eligible as offsets in a cap-and-trade program.  So far, only Senator Boxer (D-CA), Chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee, has announced that mark up of a climate change bill will happen this year.


Conservation Stewardship Program Sign-Up News:  The 21,000 farmers and ranchers who applied to participate in the 2009 version of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) now have until November 15 to complete the Conservation Measurement Tool (CMT) that will be used to determined eligibility, ranking, and payments for the new CSP.  Once all the CMTs are complete, there will be a more refined number available for how many acres are applying to the program for the 2009 year.  Currently, USDA estimates the number at 33 million acres.

Sadly, the 2009 version of CSP will retain some flaws that NSAC has asked be corrected.  Last week, NRCS indicated the changes could not be made in time to take effect for 2009 enrollments.  Hopefully the necessary corrections will be made in time for the 2010 sign-up.  In the meantime, however, ranking and payment point values remain low for newly adopted management intensive rotational grazing and for existing resource-conserving crop rotations.  Moreover, USDA is allowing rotations to count for special CSP supplemental payments if they are comprised solely of three crops eligible for federal commodity subsidies, or two crop eligible for federal commodity subsidies provided there is one winter cover crop in one year.  NSAC continues to argue for a minimum requirement of at least one perennial in the rotation to be eligible for the bonus payments.

Also this past week, NRCS placed some new documents on their website that help explain the CSP ranking and payment process.  In addition to a short and longer document explaining the scoring process, the new post also includes revised versions of the spreadsheets with all the scores for all the existing conservation baseline questions and the new conservation enhancement and regular conservation practice choices.  Also, as we previously reported, the NRCS CSP website also now includes a special document to guide organic farmers or those transitioning to organic to enhancments and practices that are of particular relevance to the organic system plan required for organic certification.

Rural Development Funds Out the Door:  On Wednesday, October 21, USDA announced it has guaranteed almost $72 million in loans for business projects in rural America through the agency’s Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program. Rural Development received $1.7 billion in stimulus funds that supplements the $1 billion appropriated for the program for 2010.  The Agency is accepting applications for these guarantees through September 30, 2010 and will announce awards in batches every several months.  Five percent of the funds are reserved until April, 2010 for local and regional food system enterprises.

Speak Up About Interstate Meat Shipment:  USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service will hold two national public meetings for comments on the proposed rules for the interstate shipment of state-inspected meat.  The meetings will be held on October 27 and November 5 and will be in a teleconference format.  Participants must register in advance and should indicate that they would like to make a comment on the registration form.  Written comments are due by November 16.


Jacob Cowgill Hired as Tester’s Ag Liaison:  Last week, Senator John Tester (D-MT) announced that Jacob Cowgill, a Montana farmer and former board member of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), a NSAC member organization, will be his new full-time agriculture liaison in the state of Montana.  In the announcement Tester stated “I’m pleased Jacob is on board to help serve fellow Montanans who make their living off the land.  Jacob knows ag issues inside and out, and he’s ready to work hard to expand opportunities for farmers and ranchers.”  Congratulations, Jacob!

Categories: General Interest

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