Even as Congress tries to figure out how it will try to deal with the financial market bailout, extension of expiring tax breaks, emergency disaster relief, and other year-end measures as it comes to the close of this congressional session, there have been some breakthroughs on the agriculture legislative front leading us to issue this special edition of the Weekly Update. We will summarize other end-of-session activities in the regular edition on Friday. In the meantime, we want to let our readers know more immediately about the following SAC wins.
Community Food Grant Funding Rescue: As we mentioned last Friday, a farm bill technical correction bill that would salvage the fiscal year 2008 funding ($5 million) for the Community Food Grants program started moving as the clock on this Session of Congress wound down. Following Senate passage by unanimous consent of a bill introduced by Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) to restore the $5 million for the current year, we are happy to report the House approved the identical measure on Monday and the bill headed to the White House for the President’s signature on Tuesday. The companion House bill was introduced by Rep. Joe Baca (D-CA).
We expect the President to sign the bill shortly. Originally it was presumed that failure to sign the bill into law by midnight on Tuesday, the final moment of the 2008 fiscal year, would make the change null and void, but USDA budget and legal experts made assurances on Tuesday that even if the signature happens later this week, the funding will still be made available to the program. So at this point, the revived funding is a sure thing.
SAC staff put in significant effort into ensuring that this bill was introduced and passed, working closely with the National Family Farm Coalition and others. As a result of these efforts, non-profit and community-based groups will be able to receive awards from the now preserved $5 million funding pool to improve access to healthy local food.
One Year Fix on Small Farm Payment Prohibition: As we noted last Friday, in response to pressure from the crop insurance industry and USDA, the Senate scaled back the previously-passed House measure to delay the 2008 Farm Bill provision denying commodity payments to farms of 10 acres or less from two years to one year. The prohibition applied regardless of how many small farms might be aggregated into a larger operation, and it affected smaller farms nationwide. Its impact was especially acute in the Northeast, Southeast, and Lake States. Some Senators, following the crop insurance industry’s lead, objected not the provision per se, but to the offset for its $20 million cost from new computer systems for USDA’s Risk Management Agency.
The Senate passed its amended version of the bill on Monday. The single year $9 million cost was offset by $6 million from the RMA computer account and $3 million available from savings from a set of technical corrections to the Farm Bill’s permanent disaster program also appended by the Senate to the House bill. The House then approved of the amended version from the Senate on Tuesday, and the bill is now at the White House for the President’s expected signature.
SAC has played a leading role in calling attention to the inequity of the underlying 2008 Farm Bill provision, which we opposed during the farm bill deliberations earlier this year. While the final result of the recent flurry of activity is only a partial, temporary solution to the situation, SAC nonetheless has endorsed the bill and applauded Congress for beginning to make the necessary corrections. We expect further action next year and intend to push for a more complete solution at that time.
Research and Extension Grants Will Move Forward: Another “technical correction” to the 2008 Farm Bill that has been on SAC’s agenda has been clarifying Congress’s funding intent for the new Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). SAC underscored that the funding for “integrated” research, education, and extension projects under AFRI is to be not less than 30 percent of the total amount of funding made available to the program and that it is to be made available to prospective grantees at the same time as the un-integrated proposals.
AFRI is the largest research program at USDA and the major competitive grants program in the federal food and agriculture research portfolio. USDA lawyers earlier maintained that without the technical correction, the funding that Congress makes available to integrated programs could not be spent by USDA. Therefore, SAC pushed hard to get Congress to pass the technical correction.
The end result of these efforts, however, was a refusal by Congress to make the technical change but at the same time a change by USDA to agree for at least FY 2009 to proceed as if the change had been made. Therefore, we are happy to report that USDA will be issuing a program announcement this November with full details about proposals (including integrated proposals) that can be submitted to the AFRI program for funding. In January, the official Request for Applications will be published, though the November announcement is expected to have sufficient information to allow interested parties to begin to prepare their grant proposals.
Happy Ending on Organic Certification Cost Share: As we reported last Friday, USDA has confirmed that it will reverse a decision posted in the Federal Register a week ago Monday that would have denied organic farmers access to organic certification cost-share assistance for the 2008 crop year. SAC strongly protested the misguided USDA decision, as did Senator Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Cardoza (D-CA). We are pleased to hear that USDA will post a revision to the Federal Register to now provide for the 2008 payments, as provided for in the 2008 Farm Bill. We will let our readers know as soon as that revised notice appears.
Beginning Farmer and Rancher Listening Session Upcoming: Earlier this summer SAC and its congressional champions achieved a major farm bill implementation win when USDA capitulated and assigned the new Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) to the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES). The BFRDP is the first USDA program ever, outside of the farm credit area, to target beginning farmers and new farming opportunities.
Recently CSREES announced it would hold a stakeholder listening session to gather ideas about how it should implement the program. The session will be in Washington on October 27 and several SAC member organizations plan to attend. If you are interested in participating, please contact Aimee Witteman email@example.com.
The BFRDP was one of SAC’s farm bill wins, with $75 million secured for the program in mandatory funding over the next four years. The program will make competitive grants to new and established local and regional training, education, outreach, and technical assistance initiatives that address the needs of beginning farmers and ranchers by providing support such as entrepreneurship and business training, financial management training, risk management education, conservation planning, and diversification and marketing strategies.