Senate Appropriators Prioritize Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development

Posted on Wednesday, July 26th, 2017 by Brian Shobe

The following is a blog post from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), of which CalCAN is a member. CalCAN previously shared NSAC’s blog posts in March and May about the Trump Administration’s proposed draconian budget cuts to agriculture, rural development, and conservation programs. We are pleased to share this positive news from the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Senate Appropriations Committee considers the fiscal year 2018 Agriculture appropriations bill. Photo credit: Zachary Silver/The Hagstrom Report.

Following closely on the heels of the House Agriculture Appropriation Subcommittee’s funding bill, which was approved by the full House Appropriations Committee last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee has advanced its agriculture appropriations funding measure for fiscal year (FY) 2018. The Senate bill moved quickly through the Subcommittee and full Committee approval process, with just two days from Subcommittee to full Committee passage. This appropriations bill funds the major programs and functions of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Similar to the bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee, the Senate bill soundly rejects much of the President’s budget proposal, which would have made massive and devastating cuts to a host of vital food and farm programs.

The overall discretionary spending limit that was established for the Senate Subcommittee ($20.525 billion), while $352 million bellow the FY2017 Omnibus spending level, was $525 million higher than the spending limit set for the House Subcommittee ($20 billion). As a result, the Senate Subcommittee was able to include significant funding increases for a number of key programs, including: the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) programOutreach and Technical Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (2501)Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), and Organic Transitions (ORG) research program. The Committee also rejected the President’s proposed cuts to Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs as well as the Value Added Producer Grants Program (VAPG) and other rural business programs; these programs were provided with level funding.

In addition to increasing funding to build upon successful programs, the Senate bill rejects the Administration’s decision earlier this year to eliminate USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area and Undersecretary for Rural Development. By retaining funding for the position and modifying statute to explicitly direct the Secretary to appoint an Undersecretary for Rural Development, Senate appropriators have taken a stand for farmers, rural America, and food producing communities. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) wishes to thank Subcommittee Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND), Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS), Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), Ranking Member Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) for their leadership in fighting for a strong Rural Development Mission Area and for the needs of rural communities nationwide.

Below, we outline key wins and important provisions in the Senate’s bill for sustainable agriculture. NSAC will continue to advocate to protect these important programs as the FY 2018 appropriations process moves forward.

Stay tuned for our updated appropriations chart, which will be posted here.

The Manager’s Amendment

During the legislating process, the “manager” of a bill, in this case Subcommittee Chairman Hoeven, has the option to make changes to a bill after introduction but ahead of consideration of that bill. Those changes are typically packaged into what is known as a “manager’s amendment.” Two important highlights were included in the Manager’s Amendment, which was approved by voice vote.

The first was the restoration of the position of Undersecretary for USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area. The Senate bill now provides funding for the position of Undersecretary, and includes language in the bill instructing the Secretary of Agriculture to nominate someone for the position. This is a different approach than the one taken by the House Appropriations Committee, which included no funding for the Undersecretary position. Read more about the the fight for Rural Development in our previous post. This directive from the Senate Appropriations Committee is the first step in the process of reinstating the position of Rural Development Undersecretary. Over the next several months, the House and Senate will need to negotiate their bills and settle on final language. Yet there is no reason that Secretary Perdue cannot move immediately to nominate an Undersecretary to be considered by the Senate for confirmation. We urge USDA to do just that, and will continue to work with Congress to include the Senate language in final appropriations legislation.

The second win included in the Manager’s Amendment was an increase in funding ($3 million) for the 2501 program. The program offers competitive grants to organizations and universities that provide technical assistance to underserved populations who are interested in accessing USDA resources. The program currently has $10 million in mandatory farm bill funding, which is not enough to meet the high demand for its services. The increased funding included in the Senate bill would provide much-needed assistance to farmers of color and military veteran farmers nationwide. NSAC thanks Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) for championing this crucial funding increase.

The Devil in the Details

Although we generally feel the Senate bill is a strong one that supports the priorities of the sustainable agriculture community, there are also a few cuts and concerning actions that should be highlighted. Below we summarize the details of the bill by NSAC priority-issue area:

  • Conservation and Energy
  • Farm Loans
  • Rural Development
  • Research and Food Safety
  • Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers
  • Other Issues and Legislative Riders

Conservation and Energy

Conservation is a mixed bag in the Senate appropriations bill. We commend the Committee for leaving mandatory farm bill funding for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) intact. This is the second year in a row that no cuts have been made to CSP in either the House nor the Senate bill. However, the Senate bill does include a cut of $294 million to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NSAC firmly believes that funding decisions related to farm bill mandatory spending should be left to the authorizing committees (in this case, the Agriculture Committee) rather than dealt with during the annual discretionary appropriations process. Fortunately, the Committee report does include a provision to ensure that the cut to EQIP does not carry forward into the ten-year baseline of the next farm bill.

The Committee also rejected the President’s proposal to gut Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), and instead included a nearly $9 million increase for the program, bringing it up to a total of $769 million. Farmers rely on CTA for direct, on-the ground conservation planning support. NSAC applauds appropriators for recognizing the importance of technical assistance and conservation planning. 

Federal energy programs fared better in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s bill than in the House. The Senate bill retains full mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), and only makes a small cut to discretionary loan funding. The House version, in contrast, cuts 98 percent of REAP’s mandatory farm bill funding. REAP is an important tool for rural communities because it provides grants and loans to farmers and businesses for energy efficiency improvements and purchase of wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems. It also provides support for energy audits and renewable energy development. The Senate Committee did mirror the House in eliminating all FY 2018 funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).

Finally, the Committee also includes language in its report encouraging USDA to designate a Deputy Undersecretary for Conservation who would serve under the new Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation. As part of a larger reorganization of the Department, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue intends to place the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Farm Service Agency (FSA), and Risk Management Agency (RMA) under a single mission area. NRCS was previously under a Natural Resources and Environment Mission Area and Undersecretary. There are a number of reasons to create a Deputy Undersecretary for Conservation in the new mission area. First, without dedicated oversight and management, conservation is at risk of taking a back seat to farm production. Second, the three agencies are in dire need of better coordination. A Deputy Undersecretary focused on conservation could help coordinate information sharing and streamline the programs and services of the agencies. The language in the report reads as follows:

Deputy Under Secretary for Conservation.—The Committee recognizes that NRCS, FSA, and RMA each play an important role in helping farmers, ranchers, and foresters manage risk and build the resilience of their operations. Additionally, better coordination and data sharing between the three agencies can limit inefficiencies, improve conservation outcomes, and enhance USDA’s ability to serve its customers. The Committee therefore encourages the Secretary to establish a Deputy Under Secretary for Conservation under the Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area to facilitate such coordination and ensure that each of the three agencies is supporting the conservation objectives of the producers that they serve.

Farm Loans

We are pleased that the Committee was able to reach consensus on holding federal farm loan funding steady at the level included in the FY 2017 omnibus package. The FY 2017 omnibus included significant increases in funding for FSA loan programs, which were badly needed given that FSA ran out of money in June of FY 2016 and was struggling to dig out from under a serious backlog of approved applications. Demand for these loans is currently higher than ever due to the long-term lag in the farm economy. The downturn has meant that more farmers are struggling to secure credit from commercial banks, and are therefore increasingly turning to FSA loan programs for assistance.

The bill includes $1.53 billion for Direct Operating Loans, $1.96 billion for Guaranteed Operating Loans, $2.75 billion for Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans and $1.5 billion for Direct Farm Ownership Loans – all level with FY 2017. By fully funding these critical FSA loan programs, the Senate is helping thousands of farmers, including beginning farmers, farmers of color, and military veteran farmers, to secure the credit that they need to start and sustain their food and farm businesses.

Unfortunately, the House Appropriations Committee’s companion bill included deep cuts to farm loan programs. Heading into negotiations between the House and Senate, NSAC will work with our partners and champions on the Hill to ensure that FSA is able to meet demand for loans in FY 2018.

Rural Development

While the House bill reduced funding for the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program by 33 percent, or $5 million, the Senate met NSAC’s request and provided level funding ($15 million) for the program in FY 2018. Farmers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs use VAPG to help them plan, develop, expand, and promote their farm and food-related businesses. The program has a proven track record of creating jobs, stemming rural out-migration, and spurring businesses that survive long into the future.

Additionally, the bill fully funds the Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program at $2.75 million. ATTRA provides practical, cutting, edge information to farmers, extension agents, and others across the country. This funding is critical to support the continued operation of ATTRA’s Armed to Farm program, which helps returning military veterans learn to farm and enter the field of agriculture. Unlike the Senate bill, the House bill cuts funding for ATTRA by 9 percent.

As the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees begin negotiating their two bills, NSAC will work to sustain FY 2017 funding levels for both VAPG and ATTRA.

Research and Food Safety

The Senate bill increases funding for USDA’s flagship on-farm research program, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, by 11 percent (to $30 million). This builds upon the progress made by Congress in FY 2016 and 2017 in increasing investments in sustainable agriculture research. In FY 2016, SARE was only able to fund seven percent of eligible research and education pre-proposals. If included in final appropriations legislation, the additional funding included in the Senate bill would increase the number of cutting edge, farmer-driven projects that help farmers and ranchers develop solutions to challenges of modern day agriculture. NSAC thanks Senator Merkley for remaining a stalwart champion of agricultural research and the SARE program.

The Organic Transitions (ORG) research program, which was zeroed out in the President’s budget request, is given a 25 percent increase (to $5 million) in the Senate’s bill. This is an important increase that represents a good start in addressing our current funding deficit for organic focused research.

Unfortunately, the outcome for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) was less positive. After two straight years of $25 million increases, AFRI received no increase in the Senate’s appropriations bill – the program would continue to operate at $375 million for FY 2018. Level funding is at least an improvement upon the President’s FY 2018 budget request, which included a seven percent cut to AFRI.

The Senate bill includes a 40 percent increase in funding for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), moving it from $5 million to $7 million. This increase comes at a critical time since FY 2018 is the first year that many farms will have to comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and additional training and outreach is sorely needed. With over 100,000 farms that could potentially be impacted by FMSA in the coming year, $7 million will provide a solid down payment on more farmer outreach and training programs.

The Senate also included report language directing FDA to “provide further clarification to small farms on the requirements for compliance with the Food Safety Modernization Act, including information on the qualified exemptions available to small and very small farms and the actions required to achieve compliance under these exemptions.”

Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers

As noted above, the Manager’s Amendment contained an additional $3 million in discretionary funding for the 2501 Program. This is on top of the $10 million in mandatory funding provided by the farm bill, which was left intact by the bill.

The 2501 program was reauthorized in the 2014 Farm Bill at $10 million per year in mandatory funding for fiscal years 2014 – 2018. This is half of the funding that had been available each year prior to 2014, despite the fact that the 2014 bill also expanded the program’s mandate to include serving military veterans. This $3 million increase is a positive step towards getting funding back to where it was prior to 2014. NSAC, our partners, and members of Congress will continue to advocate for the full $10 million in discretionary funding to be provided for 2501.

Other Issues and Legislative Riders

One other big issue addressed by the Senate bill is increased support for dairy producers and cotton farmers. The Senate bill includes language to designate cottonseed as an oilseed, which makes cotton eligible for the Price Loss Coverage (PLC) subsidy program. PLC pays farmers when the price of a program crop goes below a congressionally designated price.

The dairy provisions make several changes to the Margin Protection Program with the goal of making it work better for and provide increased support to dairy producers. The provisions increase the frequency of payment from bi-monthly to monthly, reduce premium costs, and waive the enrollment fee for underserved farmers. The modifications to the dairy program largely benefit small and medium-sized farms.

The changes to cotton and dairy will cost roughly $1 billion over ten years, split evenly between the two; however, because the changes generate no costs in FY 2018, the appropriations bill did not have to come up with an offset.

Like the final FY 2016 and FY 2017 appropriations packages, the Senate FY 2018 bill rejected a number of controversial policy riders that had been proposed in previous funding cycles, including:

  • GIPSA Rider – We are pleased that the Senate Committee bill does not include what is known as the “GIPSA rider,” which has previously been used to prevent USDA from finalizing basic protections for poultry and livestock farmers under the Packers and Stockyards Act.
  • Organic Livestock Welfare Rider – This rider has previously been proposed in order to prevent USDA from finalizing animal welfare rules for organic production systems that would implement a comprehensive set of animal welfare standards for certified organic production of animals and animal products. We are pleased that the Senate bill does not include this rider.

During the markup, a few other amendments were debated, but only two were adopted.

  • GM Salmon – An amendment by Senator Murkowski (R-AK) to prevent FDA from approving the sale of Genetically Modified (GM) Atlantic Salmon prior to the issuance of regulations requiring the labeling of GM fish was approved by voice vote. This amendment has been included in final appropriations packages the last two years.
  • Horse Slaughter ban – An amendment was approved by voice vote to continue the ban on the slaughter of horses in the United States.
  • Other amendments – Amendments related to the sugar program and premium cigar regulation were discussed but not voted on.

Next Steps

The Senate bill will now able to go to the floor for consideration by the full Senate, though it is not yet clear when or if that will happen. If a stand-alone bill does not go to the Senate floor, it will likely be wrapped into a larger omnibus funding package that includes multiple appropriations bills later in the year. As was discussed at length during the markup, there is significant bipartisan support for negations on raising the current budget caps, which would allow for higher funding levels.

Given the fact that both the House and the Senate’s work on their 12 appropriations bills is already months behind schedule, it is likely that Congress will have to pass a short-term continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown on October 1, which is when FY 2017 funding expires.

NSAC will continue to monitor and report on the appropriations process as it moves forward, so stay tuned for further updates.

For a full breakdown of funding levels included in the Senate Appropriations Committee FY 2018 bill, check back soon for our updated appropriations chart, which will be posted here.

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