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Supporting the economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities.
Updated: 18 weeks 2 days ago

Congressional Appropriators Question Secretary Perdue on USDA Budget and Reorganization Plans

Thu, 06/15/2017 - 8:30am

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) calls on Secretary Perdue to use his position to influence the budget changes to make a better impact for farmers and ranchers during the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing regarding USDA’s budget request on June 13, 2017. Photo credit: USDA, Preston Keres.

On Tuesday, June 13, shortly after appropriators received a letter from nearly 600 organizations, businesses, and local governments opposing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) plan to eliminate its Rural Development Mission Area, the Secretary of Agriculture returned to Capitol Hill to once again defend his plans for a Departmental reorganization. This week, the Secretary was before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which along with its analog in the House, determines discretionary funding levels for USDA and its programs.

This hearing, which normally serves as an opportunity for the Secretary to promote and defend the budget priorities of the President, took on a markedly different tone and covered myriad issues, including proposed cuts to voluntary conservation programs and research programs, Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL), and of course the proposed reorganization of USDA. A number of Senators, including the Subcommittee’s Ranking Member, Senator  Jeff Merkley (D-OR), asked pointed questions about the Departmental reorganization and the elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development.

Interest in Rural Development Changes Remains High

As he did at the May 25 House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Secretary Perdue continued to defend his plan to eliminate the Under Secretary for Rural Development position and the Rural Development Mission Area.

The hearing started with Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND), Ranking Member Merkley, and Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) expressing their desire to hear more from the Secretary about his reorganization plans and how he would stay true to his professed commitment to rural development.

Senator Merkley questioned Secretary Perdue on the fact that he had moved forward with the first steps of his reorganization plan (by hiring a new assistant to replace the Rural Development Under Secretary) two days prior to the end of a public comment period on the reorganization. The public comment period, which closed yesterday, was at least nominally meant to allow a wide range of stakeholders to submit testimony on the proposed reorganization, and typical good government practices would suggest that USDA should have waiting to make major decisions until well after it had collected and considered all of the comments. Last month, Senator Merkley joined a group of 29 Senators on a letter expressing concerns over the elimination of USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary. Regarding USDA plan for implementing the reorganization, the Senators’ letter stated:

We are disappointed that USDA plans to implement the reorganization even before public comments are due, suggesting that USDA has no real plan to consider these comments and make any changes based on the comments.

Decisions by federal agencies on topics with serious consequences for Americans, such as the reorganization of USDA, need to be made in a transparent manner that considers the input and recommendations of stakeholders, including those submitting public comments and the 578 groups, businesses, and local governments that signed on to Tuesday’s letter. If the Secretary is interested in making “good customer service” a core tenant of USDA, proper consideration should be given to the thoughts and concerns of constituents and lawmakers.

NSAC encourages congressional appropriators to support the restoration of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, and to oppose the proposed cuts to Rural Development funding in FY 2018.

Bipartisan Opposition to Cuts

The second major theme of the hearing was President Trump’s proposed FY 2018 budget. The President’s budget, if approved, would reduce Rural Development funding by 26 percent, eliminate all funding for the Rural Business Cooperative Service, limit funding for conservation planning, and make deep cuts to sustainable agriculture research and farm loan programs. The budget request also included several proposals for the next farm bill, including requests to eliminate farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Specialty Crop Block Grants, Conservation Stewardship Program, and Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

In most cases, the Senators showed bipartisan concern with the President’s proposed cuts, and Secretary Perdue declined to endorse or denounce them. The Secretary also pointed out that he had little influence over the budget because it was written before his nomination and confirmation.

Secretary Perdue did, however, indicate on several occasions that he wants to “right size” the USDA budget; though he also indicated that if congressional appropriators provide him more money than the budget requests, he will spend it.

Several members of the Committee, including Chairman Hoeven, Ranking Member Merkley, and Senators Tester, Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Thad Cochran (R-MS) expressed concern about specific cuts proposed in the President’s budget.

In his opening statement, Senator Merkley highlighted the important role that a President’s budget request can play in setting the tone for appropriations decisions:

“I have noted before that although many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle believe that a budget is dead on arrival, almost regardless of the President who provides it, it is still a reflection of the President’s priorities.” (23 min, 17 sec)

Senator Moran pointed out how the proposed appropriations cuts to Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), along with the proposal to eliminate CSP in the next farm bill, will harm efforts to support voluntary conservation:

“That technical assistance is hugely important in voluntary conservation…the opportunity for landowners, farmer, and ranchers to voluntary enter into programs and conduct there farming and ranching operations in ways that enhance the environmental quality of the land, air, and water is the direction that I think are important for us to pursue.” (1 hr, 40 min)

Senator Baldwin pointed out how communities in Wisconsin have used Rural Development programs. One community that she highlighted had used Rural Development funds to rebuild its drinking water infrastructure after discovering the system had been plagued by leaks. The proposed elimination of funding for drinking and wastewater infrastructure could threaten other rural communities’ ability to provide their residents safe water.

“While I hear the Administration talk about helping rural communities being a shared goal, the budget we have just seen suggests otherwise.” (1 hr, 18 min)

Senator Udall addressed the proposed elimination of 5,200 employee positions from USDA offices around the country, noting how this kind of immense staff reducing would directly harm farmers’ ability to access USDA resources such as conservation assistance.

“The [staffing] cuts will make it extremely difficult if not impossible for rural and frontier communities to successfully access USDA’s programs at the Farm Service Agency, NRCS [Natural Resources Conversation Service], and Rural Development.” (1 hr, 08 min)

NSAC appreciates the Senators’ support for voluntary conservation programs, Rural Development, and for keeping USDA programs and agencies adequately staffed so that they can meet the needs of America’s farmers, ranchers, and rural communities. We will continue to work with our members, allies, and champions in Congress on these issues as the appropriations process moves forward.

Other Issues of Note

Several other issues of note were discussed at the hearing, including the potential for resurrecting Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for beef. Senators Tester and Merkley raised this issue in light of the recent deal that the U.S. reached with China for the importation of beef, which will require traceability of the cattle and beef.

Several members also inquired about the Secretary’s thoughts on the federal crop insurance program. Though he generally expressed his support, the Secretary reiterated his view that the program needs to be “right sized,” and that farmers should not expect to receive more back than they pay in each year.

“We have got to understand that insurance is just that,” said the Secretary. “When there is tragedy, when there is drought, when there is flood, when there is hale, we need a safety net to call upon, but no longer can with think of insurance as in investment, we don’t invest a dollar in insurance and expect to get $1.10 back in that year.” (36 min)

Finally, the subject of the pace of nominations for the 15 Senate confirmed positions at USDA was raised. Secretary Perdue expressed frustration with the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics, who he blamed for holding up the pace of his nominations; some of the Senators echoed his frustration and desire for a quicker pace. No USDA nominations are currently pending before the Senate, but the Secretary confirmed after the hearing that six nominations have been forwarded to the White House from USDA.

Moving Forward

The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees typically hold a series of hearings to examine the Administration’s budget request in any particular year. After the USDA Secretary and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Administrator testify, USDA under secretaries typically appear before the Subcommittees to defend their respective portions of the budget request. However, because no under secretaries have been named or confirmed by the Senate, the Subcommittees may not hold further hearings before they complete work on their FY 2018 bills. Stay tuned for more information and analysis in the coming weeks.

Categories: Organizations

Farm to School Grant Awards Will Fund 65 Projects Nationwide

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 12:04pm

Food corps members work with kids to plant a school garden. Photo credit: NSAC.

Farm to school projects started in a small number of communities as a way to support healthy eating, connect children to farming, and expand market opportunities for farmers. Today, as interest in “farm to fork” eating has grown, so too has interest in farm to school programs, which can now be found in urban, suburban, and rural communities across the country. Many of these projects are supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm to School grant program, which this week announced $5 million in grant awards to support 65 projects across 42 states and Puerto Rico.

The awarded projects are estimated to reach 5,500 schools and 2 million students across the country. Schools with strong farm to school programs have reported benefits including decreased food waste and increased open-mindedness of students to trying fruits and vegetables, according to the 2015 USDA Farm to School Census – but the benefits don’t stop at the schools. Farm to school programs empower and educate children and their families by informing them about their food system and giving them the tools and confidence to make healthy choices, and they also support local farmers by connecting them to new market opportunities. According to the 2015 Farm to School Census, for example, local food purchasing from school districts translated into nearly $800 million spent on local food during the 2013-2014 school year. Those kinds of connections create win-win partnerships between schools, families, and family farmers.

The Farm to School grant program supports the implementation and development of planning, support services, and training projects that increase local-food sourcing in schools, improve child nutrition, foster agricultural literacy, and create marketing opportunities for local food producers. Schools, state agencies, tribal organizations, non-profits, farmers, and farm organizations are all eligible for these grants.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is proud to have played a critical role in the development of the Farm to School grant program. To date, this important program has awarded over $20 million in grants to over 300 projects across the country. We congratulate all the awardees, whose project descriptions are available at this link. We would like to extend a special congratulations to the two NSAC member groups that received funding for fiscal year (FY) 2017:

Georgia Organics

Georgia Organics will receive $25,000 through a training grant, which will allow them to administer both the 2017 Farm to School Summit and the Farm to School Track at the 2018 Georgia Organics Conference. Georgia announced the 2020 Vision for School Nutrition in December of 2015, which has a stated goal of heavily increasing local food procurement in schools. These comprehensive farm to school trainings are particularly timely and vital given Georgia’s need to address this 2020 Vision goal. 

Republic Food Enterprise Center

This project was awarded $100,000 in funding through a support service grant. The Republic Farm to School Program (RFSP) will create partnerships between local school districts and nearby farmers in order to integrate locally grown fruits and vegetables into school lunch menus. RFSP will also incorporate nutritional, agricultural, and environmental information into schools’ curricula.

Farm to School and the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization

One of NSAC’s top priorities through 2015 and 2016 was seeing our priorities from the Farm to School Act of 2015 included in the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization (CNR). Throughout 2015, NSAC worked hand in hand with our member organization the National Farm to School Network (NFSN) to build bipartisan support for CNR and the Farm to School Act in Congress, as well as among grassroots stakeholders.

NSAC was successful in securing our priorities in both the Senate Agriculture Committee and House Education and Workforce Committee bills – including increased funding from $5 million to $10 million for the Farm to School Grant program – however, the process quickly disintegrated after committee passage. Negotiations started and stopped several times, but eventually, on December 6, 2016, the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts released a statement declaring that CNR negotiations were officially concluded and the bill’s prospects for 2016 were dead.

Despite the strong public interest in farm to school programs as a way to connect farmers to new markets and increase healthy food access, there remains today no appetite on Capitol Hill to move forward with CNR in 2017. Most of the policies, programs, and funding that are traditionally reauthorized in the Child Nutrition Act (including the Farm to School grant program) are permanent, therefore they will fortunately be able to continue on in some capacity regardless of whether or not Congress acts.

We are glad to retain at least the current version of the Farm to School grant program for the time being; however, we believe strongly that increased funding and policy changes to the program are both necessary. These changes can only be accomplished through congressional action, and to that end both NSAC and NFSN are actively examining new avenues – including the 2018 Farm Bill and the annual appropriations process – to provide the farm to school grant program with the resources and improvements it needs.

Categories: Organizations

More than 570 Businesses, Organizations, and Local Governments Oppose Elimination of USDA Rural Development

Tue, 06/13/2017 - 3:59pm

Photo credit: Caitlin Joseph.

For more than 20 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Development (RD) Mission Area has helped rural communities develop and expand thriving businesses, create new economic opportunities, and build and maintain housing, water, electric, telecommunications, and other rural infrastructure. At a time when nearly 85 percent of America’s persistent poverty counties are in rural areas and rural populations are declining for the first time in history, USDA’s Rural Development mission is as important as ever. This May, however, rather than strengthening its RD toolbox, the Administration proposed devastating cuts to RD funding as well as the elimination of the RD Mission Area and Under Secretary.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has actively opposed both the President’s proposed budget cuts and the Secretary’s plans to eliminate the Mission Area and Under Secretary. On Monday, June 13, NSAC joined hundreds of local governments, businesses, and farm and rural development organizations in a letter asking the House and Senate to take action to protect RD’s status as a USDA sub-cabinet level Mission Area. The letter also opposes the Administration’s proposed $1 billion (well over $3 billion in program financing) in funding cuts for fiscal year (FY) 2018.

The Reorganization

In part, the Department’s restructuring plan stems from a congressional directive included in the 2014 Farm Bill that instructed USDA to create a new position, Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Affairs. Nothing in that directive, however, instructed or mandated USDA to eliminate another Under Secretary position in order to introduce the Under Secretary for Trade position. Despite no requirement to do so from Congress and the decades of high-impact work done by RD, the Secretary announced on May 11, 2017 that he would eliminate the RD Under Secretary and create a new, lower-level position of Assistant to the Secretary. Unlike the position of Under Secretary, the new Assistant position does not require Senate confirmation.

Though the Administration has claimed that the new Assistant to the Secretary will have more access to the Secretary than does the current Under Secretary, Under Secretaries already wield significant influence and can easily communicate directly with the Secretary. RD is currently divided into three agencies: the Rural Housing Service, Rural Utilities Service, and Rural Business-Cooperative Service. It oversees a loan portfolio of nearly $216 billion, and delivers a multitude of programs to rural communities across the country on a daily basis, programs which require significant oversight and staff capacity. It is yet unclear whether the new Assistant to the Secretary will have any staff support, as the RD Under Secretary currently does. It is also unclear how these decisions link to the President’s FY 2018 budget request, which proposes to reduce RD staff by nearly 1,000 individuals, make deep cuts to rural infrastructure programs, and completely eliminate USDA’s rural business portfolio.

Given that the recently passed FY 2017 appropriations legislation provides funding specifically for the Office of the Under Secretary of Rural Development, we expect that USDA will need to get appropriators to sign off on its plan to reallocate money designated for the position of RD Under Secretary and staffing for the current version of the Mission Area. Because of the power that congressional appropriators wield in these cases, NSAC and our allies will be looking to Congress to serve as champions for rural communities by stopping the elimination of the RD Mission Area and Under Secretary (see final section).

Serious Implications for Rural Communities

Taken alone, the elimination of the RD Mission Area and Under Secretary position are already cause for concern. Combined with the President’s proposed budget cuts, however, the situation becomes far more alarming.

Rural communities are struggling. Among the myriad challenges these communities are currently facing are: volatile commodity markets, outmigration and population decline, aging farmer and resident populations, declining tax bases, persistent poverty, limited access to affordable small business capital, and an inadequate infrastructure. As noted in NSAC’s sign-on letter with the National Rural Housing Coalition and nearly 600 other organizations:

[Rural] counties in America are in worse condition than big cities, suburbs and small or medium metro areas. Rural communities, and the people who live in them, have higher poverty and unemployment rates as well as a higher incidence of substandard housing and rent overburden when compared to metropolitan areas.

Virtually every community in the country with inadequate drinking water has a population of 3,300 or less. Although much of the country has seen recovery from the financial crisis, rural America still lags behind. The decade’s long trend of community bank closure and consolidation has hit rural areas particularly hard. The number of community banks in the United States has declined by an average of 300 per year over the past 30 years, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and a collapse in the price of agricultural commodities has added stress on many small towns and farming communities.

For decades RD has been a source of hope and support for rural communities in crisis. Though RD has for years been “doing more with less,” – RD has had to reduce total staff by nearly 3,000 full-time positions over the past two decades – it has continued to provide critical programs and customer service to rural residents.

For example, in FY 2016 alone RD made available over $29 billion in loans, guarantees, grants, and related assistance to over 157,000 individuals, businesses, non-profit corporations, cooperatives, and governments. RD’s total loan portfolio includes over 1.3 million loans that amount to nearly $216 billion. The RD Mission Area has a long track record of success and there is widespread agreement that they have managed this massive portfolio well.

If the President’s proposed cuts to RD were approved, programs would be cut by $867 million (31 percent). Virtually every direct loan and grant program would be zeroed out and investments including broadband services, electrical lines, drinking and waste-water treatment facilities, health clinics, renewable energy projects, and housing developments would be at risk. Without these programs and investments, many rural communities would be in the unenviable position of having to either raise local taxes or curtail services and defer essential infrastructure, maintenance, and construction projects.

Public Comment Opportunity

In public statements about the reorganization, USDA stated that the idea of improved “customer service” was one of the underpinnings of the suggested changes. The Department then opened a public comment period to allow stakeholders to comment on whether or not the proposed reorganization would, in fact, improve customer service. That comment period remains open until June 14. Despite the fact that USDA is still receiving input from rural stakeholders, Secretary Perdue announced yesterday that he had already moved forward with the plan and hired his new assistant, two days before a public comment period on the reorganization closes.

As the 600 signers on yesterday’s letter make clear, USDA’s decision to dismantle its rural development mission, staff, and programs will have long-lasting consequences for the nearly 46 million Americans who live in rural communities.

NSAC will work with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to stop the elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary position. We will also work with appropriators to ensure adequate funding for rural development programs in FY 2018 appropriations legislation.

Categories: Organizations

$23 Million for Conservation Innovation Projects!

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 10:58am

Clayton Carter of Fail Better Farm demonstrates the Weed Master to MOFGA Apprentices at an evening Farm Training Project Workshop. Photo Credit: Mike Mardosa, University of Maine.

In order to support the development of promising new conservation approaches, yesterday the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it will award more than $22.6 million in Conservation Innovation Grants (CIGs) to 33 projects that have demonstrated great potential in the advancement of resource conservation. This year’s projects focus on: conservation finance, pay-for-success, water management, historically underserved populations, and data analytics. Nearly one third of the awards, with grants totaling more than $5 million each, are targeted towards underserved populations. USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the CIG program, has invested $286.7 million in 711 projects since 2004 through the program.

CIGs are a subprogram of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and they are specifically designed to fund innovative conservation projects promoting science-based solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. Public and private organizations including state, local, and tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are all eligible for the program.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) congratulates all awardees on their success in a highly competitive program. In particular, NSAC would like to extend congratulations to our three member organizations that received CIG awards this year: The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, and the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA)

MOFGA will work in cooperation with its new Maine Harvest Credit Project and NRCS to combine technical services support with lending capacity in an effort to promote environmental protection and conservation practices through the development of targeted loan products. The project will help support investments in conservation improvements by subsidizing loan costs (e.g., lower interest rates, paying closing and origination fees, etc.) for conservation projects. Additionally, the three-year, $600,000 grant award will enable MOFGA to work jointly with NRCS to field test the Resource Stewardship and Evaluation Tool (RSET) to determine the tool’s effectiveness in developing a conservation plan that best meets farm goals and identifies the best conservation practices to be used on individual farms.

“The 2017 CIG National Funding awards announced today will join two areas identified by the farming community to assure successful farming operations: access to credit and technical assistance. The grant will allow MOFGA and the new Maine Harvest Credit Project to assist farmers in a project designed to promote environmental protection through the development of specialized loan products, which stimulate and reward conservation practices. We look forward to working with the credit project and with the NRCS office in Maine to ensure a healthful environment and stronger family farms,” said Dave Colson, MOFGA’s Agricultural Services Director.

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA)

DGA will work with historically underserved populations in the Great Lakes Region on apprenticeships that will foster skills in innovative managed grazing. DGA is two-year accredited National Apprenticeship that provides employment, mentorship, comprehensive training in all aspects of owning and operating a managed-grazing dairy operation, peer to peer discussion groups with local agricultural professionals, and other tools to help dairy graziers advance their careers.

“Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is excited to work with NRCS to foster conservation management among underserved beginning farmers in the Great Lakes region,” said Joe Tomandl, DGA Executive Director. “We really appreciate the positive impact that the NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants program has on agricultural lands by funding so many great projects.”

The National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT)

NCAT’s CIG award will help the organization to prevent soil erosion in the Lower Rio Grande Valley by ensuring soils are not left bare in the summer. NCAT will work with underserved, predominantly Hispanic, populations to increase education in sustainable soil management, with a particular focus on cover cropping and reduced tillage. This will be done through field demonstrations on certified or transitioning organic row crop farms, technical assistance, and knowledge transfer.

“We are excited about doing research and education on cover crops and reduced-tillage in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In this area, crop fields are almost universally left bare during the summer months, and it’s common to see winds stirring up large dust clouds and blowing away topsoil,” explained Mike Morris, NCAT Southwest Regional Office Director. “Most work on cover crops and reduced-tillage has been done in areas with cool climates, and research is badly needed on how to adapt these methods to subtropical conditions.”

You can view the full list of FY 2017 CIG awards here.

Categories: Organizations

Agricultural Solutions to Climate Change, California Takes Action

Fri, 06/09/2017 - 9:00am

Brittany Hazard, a University of California-Davis doctoral student working on wheat and resistant starch research, collects samples from a wheat field for analysis at the UC Davis’ Dubcovsky Lab. Photo credit: USDA.

Editor’s Note: This guest blog post is by Jeanne Merrill, Policy Director for the California Climate and Agriculture Network, an NSAC member organization. Jeanne believes that agriculture can play a constructive role in responding to the climate crisis by reducing its carbon footprint. 

The rollback of federal action to address climate change began in this administration in its early days, well before President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. The actual withdrawal from the agreement could take years, but the damage of the withdrawal is the message it sends.

The President suggested action on climate change and a move away from fossil fuels would cost our economy millions of jobs and trillions of dollars. This is simply not true, and all one needs to do is look at California to understand why it’s not.

California is an example of a state where climate change action has helped fuel the state’s recovery from the Great Recession. In 2006, California passed the country’s most comprehensive climate change law, adopting ambitious greenhouse gas reduction measures. But instead of lagging behind, California surged ahead thanks in large part to our action on climate change mitigation.

Since those laws went into affect, the state’s GDP growth has significantly outpaced the national average, and California now leads the country in job growth. There is no doubt that we owe a more than a small measure of this success to the state’s embrace of a new clean energy economy.

Last year, California stepped up our climate change ambitions by passing legislation requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 – or the equivalent of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half per person. Fifty percent of our energy will come from renewable sources by 2030.

California’s farmers have played an important role in our state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation successes. As US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue has suggested in many of his recent remarks, farmers have always adapted to new challenges. Climate change, however, requires a level of adaptation few have experienced before. Whether it’s more frequent floods, extreme droughts, new pests and disease, wildfire, heat waves or loss of winter chill hours, climate change requires a new way of doing business. And it requires doing all we can, now, to avoid the worst impacts.

Many California farmers and ranchers are responding to climate change. Our state’s farms and ranches produce more renewable energy, mainly solar, than farms in any other state. We also have new climate change and agriculture programs aimed at providing the financial and technical assistance farmers need to make the transition to a way of growing that not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions and sequesters carbon, but also builds resilience in the face of greater weather extremes.

California’s Climate Smart Agriculture Programs

Our coalition, the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), was formed in 2009 by sustainable and organic agriculture organizations, many of which are also members of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). We formed in order to find sustainable agricultural solutions to climate change. At the time, California was developing it strategies to achieve the new climate change law targets, but there was little discussion of the role of agriculture.

Thanks in no small part to our coalition, agriculture is now squarely a part of the discussion in California on how to address climate change. Since 2014, California has invested over $180 million in new “Climate Smart Agriculture” programs.

The first Climate Smart Agriculture programs helped California to respond to the state’s worst drought in decades and included: the State Water Efficiency and Enhancement Program (SWEEP), a new farmland conservation program to protect lands at risk of sprawl development; the Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP); and new state funding for dairy digesters to capture potent methane emissions.

At the time, California was deep into an extreme drought with our reservoirs dangerously below sustainable levels. We needed to save water. We also had a new source of funding for climate change action from the auctions held under the California’s cap-and-trade program, which seeks to reduce greenhouse gas missions from the largest emitters.

SWEEP was created, using cap-and-trade funding, to take advantage of the synergy between reducing water and energy and its associated greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Administered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), SWEEP funds improvements to irrigation, including new water pumps (e.g., going from diesel powered to solar), soil moisture monitoring equipment, drip irrigation systems and other irrigation management improvements. The program is highly oversubscribed and to date has funded over 500 projects throughout the state.

Early in Governor Jerry Brown’s tenure, his administration embraced in-fill development and related smart growth strategies to reduce vehicle-related greenhouse gas emissions. The focus was on building more transit-connected housing within the bounds of existing cities in order to avoid sprawl development. In 2012, a study from UC Davis found that an acre of urban land emitted 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions than an acre of irrigated, conventional cropland. That study gave us what we needed to advocate for farmland conservation as a complementary smart growth, climate change strategy.

Two years later SALCP was created to fund conservation easements on agricultural lands with demonstrated risk of sprawl or rural ranchette development. The first climate change-focused land conservation program, the program has funded easements on over 30,000 agricultural acres to date.

New Programs: Healthy Soils, Alternative Manure Management

After several legislative attempts, we successfully advocated last year for the creation of the Healthy Soils Program. Aimed at increasing carbon storage in our agricultural soils, trees and shrubs, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions overall, the new program launches this summer. It will provide direct financial assistance for farmers and ranchers wanting to use new soils management practices like cover crops, compost, mulch, reduced tillage or installing new plantings like hedgerows, windbreaks and more. The program will also fund demonstration projects to help promote the adoption of healthy soils practices.

The last new Climate Smart Agriculture program addresses methane emissions from dairies. Legislation passed last year will require the dairy industry in California, the largest in the country, to reduce its methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas, by 40 percent by 2030. If voluntary measures fail, direct regulations may begin in 2024. The emphasis in the state until recently has been on capturing methane from dairy lagoons using digesters. But digesters have not worked for all and may be best for large operations that are well capitalized. To better address the needs of dairies and to better achieve multiple environmental and health benefits, CalCAN advocated for a more diverse methane strategy to include non-digester solutions.

This summer, the new Alternative Manure Management Practices (AMMP) program will launch. CDFA is still finalizing the program guidelines, but the department has proposed that projects may seek up to $1 million for a range of practices that move dairy operations away from wet manure handling to drier manure handling systems that may include compost as a final product.

What’s Next for California?

Our cap-and-trade program, which funds our climate change programs, sunsets in 2020. The legislature is currently debating the future of the program. Governor Brown wants a two-thirds vote to extend it. Many are frustrated with flaws of the market-based program, but have not yet coalesced around what the next iteration of the program may look like.

But the question in California is no longer whether or not we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in new ways of living and doing business; the question is how we will achieve our climate change goals. This is the right question to be asking now.

Climate and Agriculture Action Across the Country

California is not alone in embracing agricultural solutions to climate change. New York recently announced plans to reduce methane emissions, including dairy emissions. Bills to promote healthy soils management to capture and store carbon have been introduced in a number states. Maryland recently signed their new healthy soils program into law. Multiple states are considering carbon tax or cap-and-trade proposals.

While the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord is certainly a troubling setback, it has not stopped those in local and state government, or many farmers and ranches, from pursuing sustainable, climate-friendly ways of doing business and living our lives.

Categories: Organizations

Support the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, Comments Due Monday!

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 12:20pm

Ninth-generation family farmer Genell Pridgen is a vocal advocate of the Farmer Fair Practices Rules. Pridgen farms in Snow Hill, North Carolina. Photo credit: RAFI-USA

The deadline to submit your individual or organization’s comments in support of the Farmer Fair Practices Interim Final Rule (aka the “competitive injury rule”) is Monday, June 12. The Farmer Fair Practices Rules are a critical set of changes that would bring more fairness and equity to the contract agriculture system by allowing the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to better protect contract farmers.

The interim final rule (IFR) currently up for comment would bring much needed clarification to the contract agriculture system by underscoring that farmers can seek and secure remediation if they have been made to suffer an injury or abuse by their employer (aka the corporate integrator). Currently farmers seeking justice against abusive practices routinely have to prove that harm has been done to the whole industry in order to successfully argue that they have been harmed by the actions of an integrator or meat packer. This rule is needed to level the playing field and allow farmers to seek legal remediation for harms done against them by corporate packers and integrators.

The deadline for submitting comments is very soon: June 12, 11:59 pm. Submitting a comment is very simple, however, and we encourage everyone who wants to support family farmers to weigh in!

USDA has offered four options for answering the question in the notice, but there are only really two options – allow the interim final rule to go into effect or not.

  1. Allow the Interim Final Rule to become effective
  2. Suspend the Interim Final Rule indefinitely
  3. Delay the effective date of the Interim Final Rule further
  4. Withdraw the Interim Final Rule

We at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will be submitting comments in favor of option 1, allowing the IFR to become effective. Every citizen deserves the right to seek a remedy when they have been harmed, and farmers need the IFR to become final a.s.a.p. Any further delay of this rule simply gives corporate packers and integrators more time to try and stifle farmers and their advocates through backdoor policy riders in appropriations bills or through other nefarious methods.

How to Comment

There are four easy steps to commenting:

  1. Open the Federal Register Comment Page for the Farmer Fair Practice Interim Final Rule;
  2. Type the comment you want to submit in the box;
  3. You do not have to provide your name if you do not want to, though it is preferable if you do;
  4. Submit the Comment by clicking continue.

How the IFR Helps Contract Farmers

The IFR on competitive injury confirms what previous Republican and Democratic Administrations have held, and what the underlying law plainly says: that the Packers and Stockyards Act does not require a showing of competitive injury to the industry in order for there to be a violation with respect to an individual farmer.

Requiring proof of competitive injury would mean that meat and poultry farmers would have to show that injury had been caused to the whole industry in order to make a case against fraudulent or deceptive business practice perpetrated against them by their employers. This is akin to having to prove that the entire housing market in your state was harmed by someone setting your house on fire in order to win a court case against the arsonist. Not only is this a ludicrous standard that no one should have to meet in order to see justice served, it is not written anywhere in the law.

How We Got Here

The current open comment period is a result of the April 12 2017, Federal Register Notice delaying the effective date of the Farmer Fair Practices IFR on competitive injury.

While the Packers and Stockyards Act is intended to rein in abuses by corporate meatpacking companies, the lack of enforcement authority given to the agency charged with implementing the act (USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) has made the law largely toothless. USDA has tried over the last several years to overhaul these rules so that they are more reasonable and equitable, but has been thwarted by congressional appropriators’ use of backdoor policy riders.

2016 was the first year that no policy rider was attached to stop the FFPR (aka the “GIPSA Rules) in either the House or the Senate appropriations bills, and thus the rules were finally allowed to move forward. Just when it seemed that America’s farmers would finally see some much-needed relief, however, the Trump administration issued an executive order (January 2017) delaying all pending final rules and the future of FFPR was once again uncertain.

The executive order delayed the FFPR by 60 days, and effectively extended the final comment period. On April 12, USDA issued another delay for the IFR, which extended the effectiveness date until October 19, 2017. Click here to comment now ahead of the Monday deadline. You can also visit our previous blog posts for more information on livestock competition issues.

Categories: Organizations

Disaster Assistance: from “Not a Penny” to New and Improved

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 1:21am

Just-picked green zucchini squash waits to be loaded onto a processing trailer. Photo credit: USDA, Lance Cheung.

Last week, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) released a new report indicating that changes to the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP) made in the 2014 Farm Bill have been well-received by farmers and have led to a doubling of NAP applications – from 66,000 in 2014 to 138,000 in 2015. While this is great news for farmers and for NAP, there are still thousands of farmers that don’t have access to federal risk management support.

The upcoming 2018 Farm Bill provides an opportunity for Congress to continue to improve NAP so that the program is more effective, efficient, and better serves historically underserved farmer groups (e.g., beginning, specialty crop, highly diversified, and organic farmers). As part of our farm bill work, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has developed several proposals to continue improving NAP by expanding access and addressing some of the growing pains the program has experienced following its increased popularity.

Because the federal crop insurance program does not adequately address the needs of all farmers, it is important that NAP be able to fill the coverage gap; by expanding farmers’ risk management options we can protect family farm livelihoods, as well as create a more secure and stable food supply.

NAP Improvements from the 2014 Farm Bill

NAP was first introduced in the 1994 Farm Bill as a way to move away from ad hoc disaster assistance programs and establish a better safety net for farmers with crops not covered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) federal crop insurance program. Under the original version of NAP, producers could only purchase catastrophic coverage that covered yield losses greater than 50 percent of the expected yield, at 55 percent of the average market price (NAP Basic); a rate so low that it earned the program the moniker, the “Not a Penny” program.

Chief among the improvements made to NAP via the 2014 Farm Bill was the inclusion of a provision that makes it possible for producers to pay a premium for coverage up to 65 percent of the approved yield at 100 percent of average market price (NAP Buy-Up). The bill also introduced discounts for beginning farmers, and minority and socially disadvantaged farmers, which also contributed to the increase in applications.

The expansion of NAP is an important part of strengthening the farm safety net, particularly for historically underserved producers. NAP provides an option for farmers in areas where crop insurance is not available for the crops they grow; it can even provide important data on price and quantity, which could help to expand the availability of traditional crop insurance to areas where it is not currently available. 

The changes in the 2014 Farm Bill have been an encouraging step in the right direction, but additional changes are needed in the upcoming 2018 Farm Bill in order to ensure more equitable access to crop insurance and risk management tools for producers nationwide.

Find out more about current NAP rules in NSAC’s Grassroots Guide. 

Continuing to Improve: Recommendations for the 2018 Farm Bill

While the 2014 Farm Bill’s improvements to NAP were largely positive, increased enrollment in the program has also come with increased reports of problems and challenges from producers. Chief among these challenges has been reported delays in NAP’s identification of approved yield and approved price; producers need to have a complete understanding of approved yield and price in order to know what level and type of coverage will best meet their needs. Producers have also reported challenges in applying NAP to small acreages (operations on which a farmer has only a partial acre up to a few acres of a particular crop). This is especially problematic for specialty crop or diversified producers, for which a small acreage of specialty crops may represent a large portion of the farmer’s income.

Federally subsidized crop insurance, overseen by USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA), is currently available for over 100 crops, but most of those policies are only available in a limited number of states and counties. Additionally, coverage availability has been historically tilted toward commodity crops, resulting in limited coverage for fruit, nut, and vegetable crops – aka “specialty crops.” For example, less than 10 percent of the 2.2 million federal crop insurance polices sold in 2015 were for specialty crops.

As part of our 2018 Farm Bill platform, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) will propose the creation of a revenue option (either on a crop or whole farm basis) in NAP for small acreages, expanded provisions supporting beginning farmers, and a more streamlined process for determining an approved price.

When NAP was first developed, it was used mostly for grass and a select number of other crops for which no crop insurance policy was available; still today 41 percent of NAP applications are for grass. As specialty crop producers have increasingly looked to NAP for their risk management coverage, a host of problems associated with administering NAP for small acreages have also been brought to light. Even a single acre of certain high-value specialty crops can generate tens of thousands of dollars of revenue for farmers, making efficient management of NAP’s small acreage programs critical.

NSAC recommends that Congress give USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) limited authority to develop a revenue policy for small acreages that could be used in lieu of the yield-based policy used for most crops today. FSA already has limited authority to offer revenue policies for certain crops, such as Christmas trees and other ornamental plants, which do not lend themselves to a yield calculation.

NAP can also be an important tool, alongside Whole-Farm Revenue Protection (WFRP), for providing risk management tools to diversified farms, beginning farmers, and those operating in local and regional food systems. NSAC supports the creation special provisions within the NAP program that will allow beginning farmers to build the revenue history they need in order to qualify for WFRP. Currently, a farmer needs four years of revenue history in order to participate in WFRP, which seriously disadvantages beginning farmers. NSAC proposes a special provision be created within NAP for qualifying beginning farmers. The provision would use the existing NAP fee structure (including all discounts) but would provide expanded coverage for any crop covered by WFRP, coverage levels equal to those available in crop insurance. Such a provision would also be subject to all the limitations on payments included in NAP; and in order to ensure the provision is targeted to beginning farmers, qualification would be limited to the number of years needed to develop the revenue history for WFRP (currently four).

Lastly, the procedures for developing approved prices for NAP need to be streamlined. Currently, developing an approved price can take months, seriously delaying the availability of coverage. Changes since 2014 have improved the process, but there are still too many layers of bureaucracy. In this vein, NSAC also recommends that FSA be allowed to maintain cooperative agreements with state governments and the NGO community to collect price information. This kind of data is critical to NAP and can help improve program performance.

Reducing the Risk of Low Revenue

In addition to highlighting the increased interest in NAP, ERS’ report also reveals that NAP has a significant impact on limiting the risk of extremely low realized revenue for farmers, while only slightly increasing expected total revenue. This is to say that NAP, especially buy-up NAP, can help reduce the risk of a loss that would put a farmer out of business without being so generous as to provide a large impact on upside revenue potential. In this way, NAP represents what risk management coverage is intended to be for – protection during times of loss or from unforeseen disasters, not a revenue guarantee tool. The federal crop insurance program’s generous benefits have been criticized on that point, and the early experience with NAP buy-up coverage, as detailed in the ERS report, suggests that it may help inform a more fiscally responsible approach to risk management.

Three Case Studies: Cherries, Pecans, and Squash

Three case studies (cherries, pecans, and squash) are used in the report to show producers’ use of NAP as a risk management tool. In the case of cherries, Michigan accounted for a large percentage of the increase in total NAP applications with 259 policies, 59 percent of which were for buy up. Oregon and New York were not far behind with 180 and 62 policies respectively. Overall, NAP policies for cherries increased from 169 to 631 from 2014 to 2015.

Most counties with reported commercial cherry production don’t have a federal crop insurance policy available, and so in these areas NAP is the only risk management option. Crop insurance cherry policies are available in only a few counties in eight states, although reported commercial cherry production takes place at varying levels in over 48 states. The maps below, taken from the ERS report, illustrate the disparity between the availability of crop insurance for cherries compared to the areas where they are grown.

Image credit: USDA ERS

Pecans are another interesting case when looking at NAP because they are widely grown but can only be covered by federal crop insurance in a limited number of counties in eight states. According to the ERS report: “[More] U.S. farmers produce pecans than all other tree nuts combined, and while pecans have the second-highest of bearing acres for any nut in the United States, the average bearing acres per pecan operation are less than those of almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and hazelnuts.”

The report focuses on pecans grown in Oklahoma and Texas because they have a large number of counties with over 500 bearing acres of pecans, but few counties where crop insurance is available. In fact, most pecan operations in those states do not have access to the federal crop insurance program. As a result of the improvements made to NAP, from 2014 to 2015 there was an increase from 26 to 167 applications from pecan growers in Oklahoma, and an increase from 56 to 84 in Texas. This occurred while crop insurance enrollment for pecans remained steady at 1,500.

The final crop analyzed by the report, squash, is one of the most widely grown crops in the U.S. since it is so well adapted to a variety of climates. Squash production is widely disbursed across the country; with the exceptions of NY, CA, FL, MI, no other state accounts for more than 5 percent of total volume of production. It is also important to know when looking at NAP for squash that there is currently no crop insurance policy available for this crop, making NAP the only available risk management tool for these producers.

Squash was among the crops with the top four highest NAP applications in both 2014 and 2015 (applications rose from 1,940 in 2014 to 5,421 in 2015). In 2015, four states had 500 or more applications and 12 other states had 100 or more applications.

The case studies of cherries, pecans, and squash clearly demonstrate the changes made to NAP as part of the 2014 were effective and well received by farmers. As mentioned above, however, serious challenges and obstacles still remain – particularly for historically underserved farmer groups. NSAC looks forward to working with our partners in Congress to ensure that risk management options are expanded and customized so that they can adequately meet the needs of our nation’s diverse farmers, ranchers, and food producers.

Categories: Organizations

Au Revoir, Paris: a Bad Move for America, a Bad Deal for Farmers

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 4:14pm

President Trump with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a Farmer’s Roundtable. Photo credit: USDA, Preston Keres.

Farmers are no strangers to the effects of climate change. Extreme weather events – catastrophic floods, severe droughts, and shifting pest pressures – have been impacting farmers across the country for years, and many have responded by increasing their conservation activities and moving to more sustainable production methods. Even with many farmers already implementing climate smart farming practices (e.g., planting cover crops to increase soil health and sequester carbon), some in Washington DC still refuse to properly address issues of climate change and  conservation.

Today, Donald Trump announced he will seek to remove America from its commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement, which was originally signed in 2015 by President Obama. Though fully exiting the Agreement, would likely be a years-long process (see details below), the implications of such a move will be felt more immediately – not least of all by America’s farmers and ranchers.

Though the Paris Agreement is not a legally binding arrangement, by setting clear goals and benchmarks for mitigating the effects of climate change the Agreement does set the tone for the American response to climate change and may be an indicator of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) support for American farmers in their sustainability efforts. According to the USDA’s website:

The Paris Agreement, adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, builds on the U.S.’s commitment to reduce GHG emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. By developing these building blocks, USDA and its partners have demonstrated that agriculture and forests can play a significant role in helping the U.S. meet its commitment. In turn, the U.S. is modeling practices and strategies that can be applied by nations worldwide to address emissions from the land sector while also meeting the world’s needs for food, fiber, and energy.

Like many of our nation’s farmers and farm-advocates across the country, we at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are extremely disappointed in the President’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. We remain committed, however, to supporting farmers in their efforts to help mitigate the harmful effects of climate change and to continuing to work with our partners in Congress to attempt to enhance those mitigation efforts. The next farm bill presents an important opportunity to invest in the programs and policies needed to build resilient farms and ranches, and NSAC will work closely our partners to ensure those investments are made.

Carbon Capture as a Global Solution

The President’s decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Agreement stands in direct opposition to the majority of American voters that think we should stay in the pact. The global community also recognizes the urgency of climate change adaptation and mitigation, including the central role that agricultural can play, the United States should not let itself be left behind.

Earlier this month, NSAC staff joined farmers, ranchers, scientists, policymakers, advocates, and philanthropists in France for a pair of meetings that were focused on the enormous opportunity – and urgency – for the global community to address the linkage between climate change and agriculture. The meeting included:

The significance of the location – just outside of Paris – was not lost on conference attendees; even then the uncertain future of American participation in the Agreement had been producing high levels of anxiety across the global agricultural community.

What happens next?

The Paris Agreement builds upon the United Nations Framework Convention Climate Change (UNFCC). There have been 197 parties (196 Nations and the European Union) to sign on to the Convention and 147 of those have ratified the Agreement. As word began to leak that President Trump was leaning towards withdrawing, other nations (including: China, India, Brazil, and the European Union) announced that they would fill the void left by the United States and take on the global leadership roles.

If President Trump chooses to formally abandon America’s commitment to global climate change mitigation, there are a few options before him. The first option is that Trump could choose to submit the Agreement as a treaty to the Senate for ratification; this would require a two-thirds vote and would most likely fail. The original Agreement was not sent to the Senate for ratification by President Obama. Instead, the United States negotiated to have the Agreement be non-legally binding and avoided the need for Senate ratification.

Alternatively, President Trump could avoid the Senate and decide to unilaterally withdraw. Because the original Agreement was unilaterally approved by President Obama, it can therefore be unilaterally withdrawn from by President Trump.

If the President does chose to unilaterally withdraw, there a few ways he could go about it:

  • In the first option, Trump could choose to just withdraw from the Agreement itself. However, because of the language of the Agreement, no country can withdraw until three years after it is entered into force. That occurred for the United States on October 5, 2016, therefore the earliest that Trump could withdraw from the Agreement would be the fall of 2019 – only one year before the next election. Even if he does choose this option, the Agreement states that the withdrawal does not become effective until one year after the country has provided notice of its intention to withdraw, meaning that formal withdrawal could not be accomplished until 2020 at the earliest. In the meantime, however, the President could decide not to send a representative to the annual meetings of the participating countries, and the Administration would be under no legal obligation to take steps to address climate change.
  • The second, and more complicated, option would be to withdraw the United States from the UNFCC as a whole. The United States’ participation in the UNFCC was ratified by the Senate and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. While there is some legal question if the president can unilaterally withdraw from a treaty, Supreme Court precedent and international law leans in Trump’s favor. The UNFCC has a similar three-year wait period after entry into force, but because that occurred in 1994 the timeline would be much shorter under this option. The United States would still need to wait one year after notifying the UNFCC of its intention to stop participating before it would become effective, however.

Because the Paris Agreement is not legally binding, there are no legal consequences for withdrawing. There could, however, be several diplomatic consequences. The most concerning would be a substantial tarnishing of America’s reputation as a global leader, which would likely also effect America’s ability to negotiate global trade agreements. The EU could also decide to tax American companies for carbon emissions that are released within its borders. China, Mexico, and Canada do not currently have similar carbon emissions tariffs; however, they are in the process of developing them and the United States could become a potential target. This type of global response to a US withdrawal from the Agreement would make it demonstrably more expensive to ship and sell American agricultural products overseas.

Bipartisan Congressional Support for Climate Solutions

Though the Administration has chosen to turn its back on America’s climate change mitigation efforts, members of Congress (on both sides of the aisle) are stepping up to show their support and demand action.

In the past several months, the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has grown to 40 representatives, with an equal representation of Republicans and Democrats. The Caucus, which was established to address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate, includes several members of the House Agriculture Committee.

Additionally, 20 Republican members of the House recently signed on to a resolution (House Resolution 195) that urges their colleagues to support the fight against climate change. The resolution describes fact-based stewardship of the economy and environment as a critical responsibility for all Americans to protect our shared natural resources for the next generation.

NSAC hopes that Congressional support for action on climate change will continue to grow. Farmers are greatly affected by and concerned with climate change, and we ought to support their efforts to increase the resiliency of their natural resources and their family businesses.

Categories: Organizations

New Opportunity to Influence Farm Policy at the Local Level

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 8:30am

Former USDA Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Under Secretary Michael Scuse and Cass County Farm Service Agency committeeman and farmer Trent Smith discuss the year’s soybean crop. Photo credit: USDA.

The power to make decisions about agricultural policies and programs lies not only with Congress and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials, but also in the hands of farmers, ranchers, and rural community members across the country. Stakeholders interested in being involved in federal decision making without taking a trip to Washington D.C., should explore the possibility of participating in their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) County Committee. Whether you choose to run as a candidate, or simply exercise your right to vote, engaging with your local FSA County Committee is a good way to ensure your voice is heard on important farm policy decisions.

In addition to the normal responsibilities of the County Committees (e.g. making decisions regarding existing FSA commodity or conservation program components), Committee members may be asked to provide feedback on new or emerging issues. For example, USDA recently released the details of a full reorganization of the Department, which includes co-locating the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Risk Management Agency, and FSA under a single Mission Area with a single Under Secretary. There is still a great deal of uncertainty around the proposal, and the County Committees provide a venue for farmers and ranchers to weight in on the details. If USDA gets it right, better coordination across the three agencies could benefit producers. If the Department gets it wrong, however, important agency functions could be eliminated and field offices may be closed. Now is the time to ask questions and weigh in on the reorganization.

FSA County offices are responsible for delivering and administering FSA programs at the local level. These include the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), CRP Transition Incentives Program, Direct and Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loan programs (including down payment loans and microloans), Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, Farm Storage Facility Loan program, and National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program.

Elected FSA County Committee Members have an important role to play by helping to organize and oversee outreach for these programs. They are also responsible for hiring a County Executive Director, who oversees the daily operations of the local FSA office. While County Committee Members do not have legislative powers, they do have considerable opportunities to make recommendations to agency leaders and legislators and to push for programmatic and policy changes.

An active, representative FSA County Committee can often persuade FSA county and state offices to make needed changes to farm programs. Committee Members are the primary liaisons between farmers, community members, and FSA administrators at the county and state level. As such, they are in a unique position to elevate the concerns and suggestions of those directly affected by USDA programs to those that can implement change.

FSA County Committee Members are also asked to serve as a check to ensure that FSA decisions related to outreach, technical assistance and potential programmatic changes support and incorporate the needs of socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers and ranchers (including minority, tribal, and women producers). Recognizing the importance of incorporating SDA producers’ input on FSA programs, a 2013 USDA rule supported greater SDA farmer and rancher representation on County Committees. The rule also gave USDA’s Secretary authority to appoint SDA producers directly to FSA Committees as full voting members in order to ensure fair representation based on the demographics of the county.

County Committees consist of three to eleven members and meet approximately once a month. Nearly 8,000 farmers and ranchers across the country are currently serving on the committees.

With the 2018 Farm Bill approaching and decisions about fiscal year (FY) 2018 program budgets being made now, this is a critical time for stakeholders to get more involved. The more engaged farmers, ranchers and rural community members are, the better the needs of those constituencies will be reflected in federal programs and policies.

Important Information

The nomination period for Committee Members begins on June 15, 2017 and continues through August 1, 2017. Nomination forms can be obtained from a local USDA Service Center or online here.

Ballots will be mailed to farmers and ranchers who are eligible to vote in the elections on November 6, 2017. The last day to return voted ballots to a USDA Service Center is December 4, 2017. Newly elected Committee Members will take office on January 1, 2018.

More information about FSA County Committees, committee duties and powers, nomination forms and relevant deadlines can be found here.

Categories: Organizations

USDA Secretary Testifies on Administration’s Budget Proposal, Department Reorganization

Thu, 05/25/2017 - 1:23pm

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. Photo Credit: US News

One day after the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2018 budget was released, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue headed to Capitol Hill to testify before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee. This subcommittee, along with its counterpart in the Senate, is comprised of the members of Congress who will ultimately determine discretionary funding levels for food and agriculture programs in the coming fiscal year. Perdue went before the Subcommittee in order to speak about the Administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal, and also took a considerable number of questions from representatives interested in better understanding his proposed “reorganization” of the Department.

Members of the Subcommittee pressed the Secretary to explain what drove the Administration to slash successful programs that benefit farmers and rural America. The Secretary did not attempt to defend (or decry) the proposed cuts, but simply told legislators that he would implement whatever budget Congress set for FY 2018. The Secretary did, however, defend his proposed USDA reorganization plan. He doubled down on previous claims that he was elevating Rural Development within USDA and not downgrading it. He also assured Subcommittee members that conservation programs would not be diminished despite the movement of the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to a new Mission Area shared with the Farm Services Agency (FSA) and Risk Management Agency (RMA).

Following is a summary of the Secretary’s testimony before the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee:

A Betrayal of Promises to Rural America

Members of the Subcommittee on both sides of the aisle expressed strong concerns about what the President’s proposed budget – which would gut USDA’s FY 2018 discretionary funding by an estimated 21 percent – would mean for rural America. In his opening remarks, Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL) lamented that many critical USDA programs were significantly reduced or eliminated altogether in the Administration’s FY 2018 budget request:

“Many in agriculture and rural America are likely to find little to celebrate within the budget request,” the Chairman stated.

Ranking Member Sanford Bishop (D-GA) echoed the Chairman’s concerns, noting that USDA is vital to the economic well being of rural communities across the country. He spoke about the importance of research, infrastructure programs, and support for landowners to preserve soil and water quality, and expressed his disappointment that each of these important areas faced severe cuts in the Administration’s proposal:

“You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip and the budget that was submitted yesterday attempts to do just that,” said Bishop. “Mr. Secretary, you said you will make rural America a priority, and I know without a doubt that you want to do that. However, we both know that this budget does the exact opposite of fulfilling that promise.”

The Chair and Ranking Member of the full Appropriations Committee also provided opening remarks for the hearing. Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R- NJ) reminded the Secretary and the Subcommittee that the hearing (and in fact the President’s budget request itself) was merely part of the process, and emphasized that ultimately the “power of the purse” belongs to Congress. Ranking Member Nita Lowey (D- NY) noted the crushing impact that the Administration’s budget would have on rural Americans and people worldwide:

“Sadly, you come before us with a budget proposal that will increase hunger worldwide, devastate Rural America, increase burdens on the department, and make it more difficult to meet the basic needs of American families,” said Lowey.

Throughout the hearing many other members of the Subcommittee expressed alarm over the Administration’s proposed budget and probed Perdue for his thoughts and insights on the proposals and USDA’s ability to continue to meet its mission on a shoestring budget.

Proposed Cuts Would Mean Challenges and Missed Opportunities

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) noted that programs like the Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) have created new economic opportunities for farmers in Maine and around the country.

The budget request proposes to completely eliminate all mandatory and discretionary funding for VAPG, claiming that this funding is duplicative. Congresswoman Pingree challenged this assertion, explaining that in Maine alone VAPG has provided business planning support and seed capital to creameries, potato growers, hop producers, and many others:

“How can you justify that it is a duplicative program?” the Congresswoman asked. “I don’t see anywhere else that farmers are going to go to get those same grants and opportunities.”

Secretary Perdue noted that he would look into it and get back to the Congresswoman’s question. In closing, Congresswoman Pingree also noted her opposition to the 11 percent proposed cut to the National Organic Program (NOP). She opposed the suggestion that three vacant NOP positions would not be filled, and emphasized the importance of the program’s work.

SNAP Proposals “Fail the Test of Basic Human Decency”

Several members of the Subcommittee spoke out against the proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which would take nearly $200 billion from the program over the next ten years. Ranking Member Bishop spoke the most boldly against the proposed cuts, saying that they “fail the test of basic human decency.”

Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) also insisted that the cuts were unacceptable and told the Subcommittee that “we can and must do better in the United States.” She called the proposal a “cruel, heartless turning of our backs,” and promised that it would not move forward. Additionally, she noted the irony of the White House proposal when compared to what Secretary Perdue claimed as USDA’s new mission – “Do right and feed everyone.”

Reorganization Concerns Remain

As with last week’s House Agriculture Committee hearing, Secretary Perdue faced questions regarding his proposed USDA reorganization plan. Members of both the Committee and Subcommittee expressed particular concern over the reorganization’s impact on USDA Rural Development. When paired with the Administration’s FY 2018 budget request, which severely cuts or eliminates nearly all Rural Development programs, the reorganization proposal would spell disaster for rural communities.

Members of the Subcommittee stressed that they needed more information regarding two major pieces of the reorganization – the elimination of the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary position, and the move to put NRCS, FSA, and RMA under a single mission area. 

Subcommittee members are carefully reviewing the reorganization proposal, and both Chairman Aderholt and Ranking Member Bishop insisted that they would need more information on how the changes would potentially impact rural communities. Congressman Bishop noted that while he appreciated the Secretary’s commitment to advancing rural development, he still was grappling with how the restructuring would address the complex suite of programs and responsibilities embedded within the current Mission Area. Congresswoman Pingree underscored how problematic the reorganization would be for her constituencies, particularly in combination with the Administration’s proposed cuts.

Appropriators have the power to stop the Administration from eliminating the Rural Development Mission Area and Under Secretary, and we will continue to encourage them to do just that.

Moving Forward

The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees typically hold a series of hearings to examine the Administration’s budget request in any particular year. They then develop and pass their appropriations bills sometime in the spring. Given the late release of the budget request this year (May instead of the normal release date of early February), it is unlikely that the Subcommittees will hold their normal number of hearings for FY 2018. Moreover, the USDA Under Secretaries, who typically appear before the Subcommittees to defend their respective portions of the budget request, have yet to be named and confirmed by the Senate. We expect that the Subcommittees will hold one or two more hearings throughout May and June before developing and passing their FY 2018 bills ahead of the August recess. Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks.

Categories: Organizations


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