Sustainable Agriculture Wins in FY2018 Omnibus

Early this morning, Congress passed a government spending package (the “omnibus appropriations bill”) to fund federal programs through the end of September, which is when the current fiscal year expires. The House passed the package 256-167 on Thursday, the Senate passed the bill 65-32 Friday morning, and the President signed the bill into law that same afternoon. The bill has been praised by many food and farm organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), for providing much-needed funding to programs that support family farmers and the good food pipeline – among the bill’s most notable achievements is the inclusion of a record level of funding for the unique farmer-driven research program that NSAC helped to develop 30 years ago this year, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE).

Each year, Congress passes spending bills to fund discretionary government programs, including many administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FY 2018 appropriations cycle began in May 2017 when the President released his budget request for the year. The House and Senate Appropriations Committees then passed their individual agriculture appropriations bills for FY 2018, but the bills stalled until   Congress reached a new budget deal in February raising discretionary spending caps for both defense and non-defense programs. The budget deal in turn provided a slightly greater than $2 billion billion increase for Agriculture Appropriations, which was then divvied up as part of the omnibus spending bill that passed this morning.

This week’s omnibus appropriations bill is the culmination of those negotiations, which have included multiple funding extensions, a massive deal for dairy and cotton, and a major multi-year budget agreement that created an opportunity for additional investments in key sustainable agriculture programs.

Overview

The omnibus provides roughly $20.4 billion for USDA and $2.9 billion the Food and Drug Administration; roughly $2.1 billion above FY 2017 levels.

Of the $2.1 billion, the majority of the money is directed toward priorities identified in February’s two-year budget deal, namely improving rural infrastructure and fighting the opioid epidemic. The spending includes $600 million for broadband access and over $1 billion for rural water and waste disposal infrastructure, an increase of $500 million over last year.

In addition to increasing infrastructure spending, the bill protects and increases investments in numerous sustainable agriculture priority areas, including: farm conservation, sustainable agriculture research, rural business development, outreach and technical assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers, food safety training, and farm credit programs.

Unfortunately, however, the bill also contains a number of harmful policy riders. Among the most concerning to NSAC is a provision to exempt Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from certain pollution-reporting requirements under federal law.

This post breaks down the omnibus as it pertains to NSAC’s farm and food priorities for FY 2018, including:

We will also detail some of the major policy riders included in the bill, and explain what the omnibus means in the context of the ongoing FY 2019 appropriations cycle.

For a detailed spreadsheet of funding levels, download our updated appropriations chart. 

Conservation and Energy Programs

In a major departure from the status quo, the FY 2018 funding bill included no cuts to mandatory spending for the farm bill’s largest working lands conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). One or both of these programs (in addition to other conservation programs) has suffered “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (aka CHiMPS) each year since 2003. With no cuts made to CSP or EQIP this year, there will also be no cuts to funding for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which pulls some of its funding from both programs.

NSAC applauds appropriators for protecting these critical conservation programs, and leaving the primary decision making about farm bill programs with the Agriculture Committees, which are already hard at work writing the next farm bill. Having broken with the cycle of stealing from conservation programs through the backdoor CHiMPS process, we urge appropriators to continue to leave farm bill program decisions to the Agriculture Committees, and to provide full funding for farm bill conservation programs in FY 2019.

In addition to supporting working lands conservation programs, the bill also provides for a much-needed increase in funding for Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA), which provides farmers with on-the ground conservation support from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) local offices. CTA supports farmers’ resource management through conservation planning assistance, resource assessment, and monitoring of conservation activities. The bill provides an increase of $10 million (for a total of $874.1 million) to Conservation Operations, including $774.4 for CTA in FY 2019.

The FY 2018 bill also protects farm bill mandatory funding for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides grants and loans to farmers and rural businesses that want to make energy efficiency improvements REAP funds the implementation of wind, solar, or other renewable energy systems, and also provides resources for farmers’ energy audits or renewable resources development. Although REAP funding remains intact, the bill does eliminate all remaining funding for the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).

One very bad policy rider added to the EPA appropriations portion of the omnibus is a legislative provision  exempting of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) from pollution reporting requirements under federal law. Reporting would help rural communities respond to potentially harmful levels of ammonia and hydrogen sulfide created by massive amounts of animal manure.

Research and Food Safety Outreach

The omnibus makes historic investment in four key agricultural research competitive grant programs, a strong rejection of the devastating cuts that were proposed in the President’s FY 2018 budget proposal. The bill provides a 30 percent increase in funding for USDA’s flagship sustainable agriculture research program, SARE, which is currently celebrating its 30th year leading farmer-driven research.The bill raises SARE’s funding to $35 million for FY 2018, the program’s highest funding level to date. NSAC thank appropriators, particularly Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), for increasing funding for this landmark program and for continuing to invest in the advancement of American agriculture.

The Organic Transitions (ORG) research program also reached its highest funding level in the FY2018 bill ($5 million), which will allow ORG to ramp up its support of the growing contingent of American organic farmers and livestock producers.

After two straight years of $25 million increases, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) received an additional $25 million increase in the FY 2018 spending bill, bringing it to a funding level of $400 million for FY 2018. This funding, which is above the level funding proposal initially included in both House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills, is a positive sign for the future of agricultural research and development.

Finally, NSAC is also very pleased that the FY 2018 bill has also included increased support for the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP); an increase of $2 million, bringing total funding to $7 million. With an estimated 100,000 farmers impacted by the new regulations of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), many of which will need to make sure they are in compliance in the coming year, this increase is particularly timely and welcomed.

Outreach to Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers

In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress performed a confusing and damaging double maneuver that both significantly increased the target base for the then dubbed Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program by adding military veterans as beneficiaries, and also slashed the programs mandatory funding in half.

In the FY 2018 omnibus the program, now called the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also known as the “Section 2501 Program”), received a hard-fought additional $3 million in discretionary funding; this additional funding will be combined with the $10 million provided to the program by the 2014 Farm Bill. NSAC would like to recognize Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) in particular for his leadership on this issue, and the Senate in general for including this funding in their version of the spending bill and ensuring that additional funds were included in the final omnibus.

Section 2501 provides crucial services to our nations veteran farmers and farmers of color, increasing historically underserved communities’ access to and engagement with USDA programs. NSAC has sought to restore the program to its former funding levels since the 2014 cuts, and while we welcome this increase, we will continue to advocate for this important program to receive the full funding it needs to properly serve its large constituent base.

Rural Development and Local Food

On the issue of rural development, the omnibus was a mixed bag. While the bill did reject the President’s proposed cuts to Rural Development programs, it also cleared the way for USDA’s plan to demote the Rural Development Mission Area.

We commend House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Ranking Member Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) for ensuring that the President’s proposed cuts to Rural Development programs were thwarted, and for their defense of USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area.

Thanks to these and other leaders in Congress, potentially devastating cuts to the Rural Business Development Grants (RBDG) program, Rural Cooperative Development Grants (RCDG), Business and Industry Loan Guarantee Program (B&I), Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA) program, and the Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG) program were circumvented.

Congress retained the FY 2017 increase of $15 million in discretionary funding for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program in the omnibus, a 40 percent increase over FY 2016 funding. Maintaining this funding level for VAPG was especially important this year, because the program has very little in mandatory funding left from the 2014 Farm Bill. VAPG is a major supporter of farmer entrepreneurship, helping farmers and ranchers to develop new farm and food-related businesses that boost farm income, create jobs that cannot be outsourced, empower local communities, and increase rural economic opportunity.

ATTRA, RBDG, RCDG, and the B&I programs were all retained with level or increased funding; RBDG receiving the biggest increase at $10 million.

The Health Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), also administered by USDA Rural Development, received level funding of $1 million. This program, which provides funding to address food deserts and other healthy food access issues, received funding for the first time through USDA during FY 2017.

Local food lovers and family farmers received one more huge win in the omnibus, $5 million in additional discretionary funding for the Farm to School Program. This funding is critically important to the Farm to School Program’s ability to continue connecting children with healthy local food, opening new markets for family farmers, and providing innovative agricultural education in schools across the country. NSAC applauds this increase in discretionary funds, and will also continue to advocate for the allocation of mandatory funding as part of the next farm bill.

Farm Credit

The omnibus rejects the cuts proposed by the President’s budget by retaining funding levels for the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Guaranteed and Direct Operating loans, as well as for Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans. As a result, these programs will continue with level funding from FY 2017, which should be adequate to fulfill demand for the rest of the year. A breakdown of funding for each program follows:

  • Direct Operating Loans: $1.5 billion
  • Direct Farm Ownership Loans: $1.5 billion
  • Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans: $2.7 billion
  • Guaranteed Operating Loans: $1.9 billion

Given the ongoing struggles of the American farm economy, including a prolonged period of low commodity prices, ensuring adequate funds to fulfill demand is critical. NSAC thanks House and Senate agriculture appropriators, including Senator John Hoeven (R-ND), for recognizing the need for this support – especially for beginning farmers and ranchers who are unable or struggle to secure capital in the private market.

USDA Reorganization

As aforementioned, the omnibus rejected the Administration’s proposed cuts to Rural Development programs, but cleared the way for the downgrading of USDA’s Rural Development Mission Area by removing language from the Senate bill that would have prevented it. Many food, farm, and rural organizations (including NSAC) have vociferously opposed the “reorganization” of USDA and elimination of the Under Secretary for Rural Development – a position that, as part of USDA’s subcabinet, was in a prime position to safeguard rural priorities at the highest level. NSAC’s reaction against the proposed downgrading of the Rural Development Mission Area can be found here.

In addition to changes to Rural Development, the bill also changes the title that had previously been assigned to the Under Secretary position for the newly established Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) Mission Area from Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service, to Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation.

The FPAC Mission Area encompasses FSA, NRCS, and the Risk Management Agency (RMA). Bill Northey, former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, was recently confirmed to fill this position.

NSAC looks forward to working with Under Secretary Northey in his new position, and we are committed to ensuring that this new Mission Area provides for better coordination between the included agencies, while also protecting and enhancing the unique goals and expertise of each. Under Secretary Northey has shown a long commitment to conservation and agricultural stewardship in his previous career as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, and we look forward to working with him to further advance these goals.

Policy Riders 

In addition to dictating discretionary funding levels, it has become commonplace for appropriations bills to include legislative riders that set or modify policy, despite a general rule that appropriations bills are not supposed to legislate. Two policy riders of note for the sustainable agriculture community were debated in the FY 2018 omnibus, the first was thwarted, but the second was adopted:

  • Clean Water Rule: This provision, which was thankfully left out of the omnibus, would have exempted the Administration from withdrawing and replacing the Clean Water Rule (formerly known as the “Waters of the U.S.” rule) without allowing for a public comment period. Any decision to replace the rule will now have to be accompanied by an opportunity for the public to comment on that decision.
  • CAFO Rider: Unfortunately, the omnibus includes a bipartisan provision to exempt CAFOs from having to report toxic air emissions under the Comprehensive Environmental Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). CAFOs will now be under no obligation to report emissions, despite their demonstrable impacts on local communities and air quality more broadly. Rejecting a more commonsense approach that would allow for improving the CERCLA process and ensuring that defensible measurement methods are developed, the CAFO rider instead undermines common sense public health protections,and endangers rural communities.

Next Steps

The Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate are currently in the process of receiving appropriations requests from members of Congress and outside stakeholders before writing their FY 2019 bills. Once all requests have been received, the subcommittees will begin writing their respective bills. We expect those bills to be debated and passed through the Appropriations Committees later this spring or early summer.

As a reminder, the President released his FY 2019 budget request earlier this year. Download our full appropriations chart for a detailed breakdown of that budget request. You can also view NSAC’s top appropriations priorities for FY 2019 here. Stay tuned for more information in the coming weeks and months!

Amanda Hodges