USDA Listening Sessions Offer Opportunities for Stakeholder Engagement in Farm Bill Implementation

Posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2019 by
farmer rancher listening session with USDA in south Texas Photo Credit: USDA; Shown: a Farm Service Agency meeting in south Texas. USDA kicks off a series of Farm Bill Implementation Listening Sessions.

This is reposted from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, of which CalCAN is a member. NSAC’s blog offers a host of updates about the Farm Bill and other important federal agriculture policy issues and advocacy opportunities. See the original post.

In an effort to engage farmers and other stakeholders in the implementation process for the 2018 Farm Bill, this week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the first of many formal listening sessions to gather public input.

On Tuesday, USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Mission Area held a formal listening session at the USDA headquarters in Washington DC, where they accepted public comments from stakeholders across the agriculture community. FPAC’s session focused specifically on the implementation of programs within the jurisdiction of FPAC’s Mission Area: the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Risk Management Agency (RMA), and Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s (NSAC) policy team presented formal oral comments pertaining to all three agencies, and will be following up with additional, detailed recommendations on how USDA can best implement the many new programs and policy changes included in the new farm bill. In addition to the sessions held this week, USDA has also announced additional listening sessions that will focus on the seven other USDA Mission Areas.

FPAC Listening Session, NSAC Recommendations

NSAC works closely with all three agencies that were represented at this week’s listening session: FSA, RMA, and NRCS. Together, these agencies administer and oversee a wide array of programs important to family farmers and the conservation of natural resources.

Our recommendations made to FSA included an ask that the agency increase monitoring and public reporting of lending trends for FSA farm loans. This is to help ensure that small and mid-size family farms, new and beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers are able to continue accessing credit from FSA lenders. The 2018 Farm Bill raised loan caps across the board for all FSA direct and guaranteed loans (effective immediately), which will inevitably affect who can and cannot access FSA loans.

On the subject of crop insurance provisions, NSAC urged RMA to quickly move forward on implementing changes in the farm bill that make it easier for farmers to integrate cover crops and other conservation practices on their farms. Thanks to new language in the farm bill, it will be easier for RMA to include cover cropping in their list of Good Farming Practices, which will safeguard farmers against incurring penalties from their crop insurance policies. NSAC also highlighted the improvements made in the farm bill to the Whole Farm Revenue Protection program, emphasizing how important it is for RMA to engage stakeholders in their efforts to implement further improvements that will help the program to better serve farmers producing for local markets.

Finally, NSAC urged NRCS to increase coordination between the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), as was mandated in the new farm bill. NSAC also urged USDA to implement EQIP’s new Incentive Contracts in a way that does not duplicate efforts by CSP and allows seamless graduation to more advanced conservation through CSP. NSAC also called on NRCS to move forward with the fiscal year (FY) 2019 sign up process for CSP as quickly as possible, and to incorporate straightforward changes to increased payments for cover crops and resource conserving crop rotations as part of that sign up.

Additional recommendations for each agency can be found in NSAC’s official oral remarks: FSA remarksRMA remarksNRCS remarks. NSAC will submit more detailed comments to all three agencies in writing.

Upcoming Listening Sessions

Nine more listening sessions have been scheduled over the next month to allow other USDA agencies to gather public input on farm bill implementation. Stakeholder participation in these sessions is both an opportunity to provide input directly to the Administration, and also an important piece of USDA’s implementation process. Listening sessions help USDA to ensure that its agencies are responding to the priorities and needs of the food and agriculture community – including stakeholders from the sustainable agriculture community.

Agencies that will be hosting formal farm bill listening sessions over the next month include: the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services; Rural Development; Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area (i.e., NIFA, ARS, ERS, NASS); Agriculture Marketing Service; Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service; Forest Service; and Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs.

Additional information and scheduling for the listening sessions can be found here.

Farm Bill Next Steps

Although there will be additional opportunities for stakeholders to formally weigh in on farm bill programs and provisions through the rulemaking process, the listening sessions are a critical early opportunity for engagement. It is during this phase of the process that stakeholders can best influence USDA’s proposed rules, and help dictate what guidance is given to agencies about program implementation, and what changes are included in administrative handbooks.

Different agencies are at different stages of assessing the farm bill’s changes and determining how their staff plans to address them. NRCS, for example, has been working on changes to program rules and regulations since the passage of the farm bill in December 2018. Most other agencies, however, were significantly delayed by the partial government shutdown and have not begun reviewing the new bill. USDA has not released an official timeline for proposed rules or other implementation activities, however, it’s likely that we will begin to see the first round of proposed rules reflecting farm bill changes later this year – possibly as early as this summer or even late spring.

In this week’s Congressional hearings on the farm bill, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue laid out some specifics regarding when commodity, dairy, and hemp programs would be rolled out. See our previous post for additional details.

USDA is also hard at work getting Requests for Applications (RFAs) out the door for fiscal year 2019, especially for those programs whose grant funding must be obligated by the end of the fiscal year (i.e., September 30, 2019). We expect RFAs for programs including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative to be released within the month. Others, such as the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers programFarmers’ Market and Local Food Promotion Program, and Value-Added Producer Grants program are expected to follow soon after.

It’s very likely that many of these grant programs will have a shorter application window, given the delay in passing the farm bill and administrative delays caused by the month long government shutdown.

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