House and Senate Consider USDA Funding Requests

By: sustainableag , 6:16 PM GMT on March 28, 2014

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The House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees held a total of four hearings this week to examine the Obama Administration’s FY 2015 Budget Request.  The House Subcommittee heard testimony from the heads of two USDA mission areas—Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services (FNS), and Research, Education and Economics (REE)—as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Concurrent with the House REE hearing, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Subcommittee to discuss the Department’s FY 2015 funding requests more broadly.  The Subcommittees will consider USDA’s requests as they write their funding bills for the year.

In addition to considering the Administration’s FY 2015 budget requests, the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees will receive requests from Members of Congress.  Those requests are due by March 31 in the House and by April 4 in the Senate.

Research, Education and Economics Hearing

Food Safety Training – In her opening statement to the House Subcommittee, REE Undersecretary Cathy Wotecki discussed one of NSAC’s top appropriations priorities for the coming year – the Food Safety Outreach Program.  Wotecki noted:

“Further demonstrating USDA’s commitment to a safe and secure food supply is our request for $2.5 million to establish a program to provide food safety training, and outreach to owners and operators of small farms, food processors, and fruit and vegetable vendors affected by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) of 2011.  The program will target small and medium-sized producers, as well as beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, to focus on helping key target audiences understand and interpret new Federal food safety guidelines enacted under FSMA.  This will enable producers to develop and implement those guidelines in their respective environments.  This funding will facilitate a partnership with the Food and Drug Administration, who is charged with implementing FSMA, to jointly coordinate the program.”

One two-year food safety outreach and training project is expected to cost roughly $300,000, and would reach 1,000 farmers and small processors.  The Administration’s FY 2015 request for $2.5 million would likely cover eight states and roughly 8,000 producers.  As such, NSAC is requesting $5 million in FY 2015 to expand the reach of the program to cover additional states.

Subcommittee Ranking Member Sam Farr (D-CA) noted that the FSMA rules will be a major challenge for small and mid-sized producers and processors.   He voiced concerns about a “one size fits all” approach to food safety regulation and urged UDSA to integrate regional and local efforts.  Congressman Farr then asked how USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) will be involved.  ERS Administrator Mary Bohman responded that ERS is part of the team working on food safety, coordinating with USDA and FDA.  They will be helping to address data gaps before and during implementation of FSMSA.  Congressman Farr asked that they share that data and analysis with Congress.

Public Plant and Animal Breeding – Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) noted her concern over farmers’ dwindling options for locally adapted and publically available seed varieties and animal breeds.

“For U.S. agriculture to be successful in the long term, our farmers need access to seeds that are adapted to their local climate, pest conditions, and growing systems,” Congresswoman Pingree said.  “Farmers need seeds that are bred in their local conditions and cropping systems, in other words, seeds that are classically bred and available for public use.”

Representative Pingree pointed out that more needs to be done to not only ensure our nation’s future food security, but to ensure that today’s farmers – including young and beginning farmers and those farmers growing for local and organic markets – have access to the highest quality seeds that are bred for their types of farming conditions and work well on their farms.  The Congresswoman urged Undersecretary Wotecki to increase efforts to reverse the trend of declining seed varieties that are regionally adapted and publically available.

SARE – Ranking Member Farr also spoke in support of another of NSAC’s top appropriations priorities, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.  “Strong consumer demand for sustainably and organically produced foods has fueled strong, continued growth in these sectors of agriculture, yet federal investments in sustainable and organic farming research have not kept pace with this growth,” Congressman Farr pointed out.  “The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program has helped turn farmer-driven research, education, and extension initiatives into profitable and environmentally sound practices for over twenty-five years.”

Ranking Member Farr explained that he was pleased that Congress was able to provide a long overdue increase in funding for SARE in last year’s appropriations bill.  He expressed concern, however, that total funding for SARE still rests at only a third of its authorized level after a quarter of a century of success in farmer-driven research innovations.

NSAC is requesting $30 million to cover the research, education, extension, and federal-state matching grants components of the SARE program in FY 2015.

USDA Secretary Vilsack

On Wednesday, March 26th, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified before the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on USDA’s budget proposals for Fiscal Year 2015.  Subcommittee Chair Mark Pryor (D-AR), along with Ranking Member Roy Blunt (R-MO), pressed the Secretary on the timing of regulations for new Farm Bill programs – including the new farm commodity and dairy programs, as well as the timing of payments for disaster assistance to livestock producers.  These are all issues that USDA will be working on early in 2014.

Payment Limits – Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) quizzed the Secretary on his intentions on the farm bill directive that USDA write new “actively engaged in farming” rules to effectively enforce the congressionally-mandated per farm payment limitation on commodity subsidies.  He urged Vilsack to take the same approach taken by both the House and the Senate when both bodies passed a hard cap on payments and limited recipients of subsidies to farm operators, crop share landlords, and one additional manager.  That language was tossed out of the farm bill by the chairs and ranking members of the Agriculture Committees, despite passing in both houses of Congress.

Johnson asked for the Secretary’s commitment that whatever particular path the Department might choose to take on the actively engaged in farming rules, whether the one adopted by the House and Senate or a different one, that there be an effective $125,000 per farm cap on payments.

Secretary Vilsack’s response was not positive.  He stated that Congress had tied his hands with a new so-called “family farm” loophole that will severely limit his capacity to adopt rules that would create a hard cap.

Contrary to the Secretary’s statement, NSAC believes the Department does in fact have the authority to create a hard cap, and will be continuing to drive home that point to USDA as it develops a proposed rule to be released for public comment later this calendar year.

Public Plant Breeding – Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) raised the important issue of USDA funding for public cultivar development, to ensure that farmers of all kinds have access to high quality plant seeds and animal breeds that are adapted to their local growing conditions.  Vilsack stated that USDA is funding over 100 projects to address this issue including 150 scientists in every state across the country.  He did recognize that this is an important issue that was raised last year as well, and committed to making sure USDA research agencies are refocusing attention on this issue.

Fair Contracts and Competition – Senator Tester also stressed the importance of the Packers and Stockyards Act in ensuring livestock producers have access to a free market economy based on fair competition and transparency.  Since the 2008 Farm Bill was passed, which included a directive to USDA to establish rules addressing the widespread abuse by large meatpackers and poultry integrators on contract producers, appropriators have used the annual appropriations process to undo or halt this rulemaking process.  Tester spoke strongly against any continuing abuse of the appropriations process to block enforcement of the law that protects farmers and ranchers from deceptive and unfair practices.

Field Office Restructuring – Secretary Vilsack also outlined the President’s proposal to restructure Farm Service Agency state and field offices, but reassured the Subcommittee that no FSA offices would be closed in 2014.  Subcommittee members expressed some concern about the restructuring, given the increased need for producer assistance in understanding and applying for new Farm Bill programs.

New Research Institutes — Both Senators Pryor and Blunt commended Vilsack for the bump up in agricultural research funding, and asked for more details on the three new Innovation Institutes proposed in the President’s Budget.  The Secretary explained that the Institutes would be mostly “virtual” and fill the gaps in research on three high priority areas, including pollinator health, anti-microbial resistance, and bio-based manufacturing.  These Institutes would be “private-sector driven,” and would be based on partnerships between USDA, universities and other research stakeholders. 

Upcoming Hearings

Next week, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will hold hearings on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday to review USDA’s budget requests for Marketing and Regulatory Programs – which includes the Agricultural Marketing Service and the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) – Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Rural Development, respectively.

The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee will be holding two additional hearings on funding for the Food and Drug Administration on April 3, and on Research and Rural Development, on April 10.  We will continue to monitor and report on the process as Congress gets closer to writing its FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bills.

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We are an alliance of grassroots organizations that advocates for federal policy reform to advance the sustainability of agriculture.