Subcommittee on Conservation
Bruce Nelson, Acting Administrator of the Farm Service Agency, and Dave White, chief Natural Resources Conservation Service, testified in the conservation hearing, which was chaired by Congressman G.T. Thompson (R-PA). The witnesses and Subcommittee discussed the participation levels in the conservation cost share and easement programs, and possible overlaps of programs that duplicate funds going to producers for single conservation efforts.
The Organic Initiative, which is part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, was specifically mentioned by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME). Congresswoman Pingree asked about participation in the Organic Initiative, and what efforts were being made to better train agency staff to streamline sign-ups for organic producers. Chief White replied that the agency is a traditional agriculture agency and that training for staff to better serve organic producers is ongoing. He said the sign-up procedures are also being made more organic friendly for organic producers. Chief White said that only $25 million of the $50 million set aside for the Organic Initiative was used. He said the Conservation Stewardship Program and Agricultural Management Assistance Program also benefit organic producers. Congresswoman Pingree also mentioned that the average age of farmers in Maine is going down while the number of farms is increasing, due in large part to opportunities created by organic agriculture.
Another interesting issue discussed by Members of the Subcommittee was the impact that conservation programs have on producers that rent land. Members said constituents are complaining that the conservation programs are offering more money than the land rental market, which encourages landowners to put land into conservation instead of renting to producers. Both Nelson and White acknowledged the problem, and said they are using county by county rental market rates collected by the National Agricultural Statistics Service to determine payment rates.
The opening statements of the witnesses, the Subcommittee’s press release, and a replay of the hearing can be seen here. A matrix of the conservation programs administered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service can be seen here.
Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture
The Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture hearing discussed specialty crops, and focused primarily on research efforts to control specialty crops pests, government purchases of fruits and vegetables, and the use of Specialty Crop Block Grants for research, promotion, and education. Rayne Pegg, Administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), and Rebecca Bech, Deputy Administrator for Plant Protection and Quarantine at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Chairwoman Jean Schmidt’s (R-OH) opening statement focused on the need to look at the big picture in the next Farm Bill, as the budget is tight, and there is no room for duplicative programs or waste. Ranking Member Joe Baca’s (D-CA) opening statement highlighted the growth of the organic industry in his opening statement, commenting that Congress recognized the importance of the specialty crops and organic in the 2008 Farm Bill by authorizing $3 billion for related programs. He also commented that organic is now 11% of fruits and vegetables in the U.S., with over 430,000 acres in California being farmed organically. He said that the support shown for organic and specialty crops in the 2008 Farm Bill should continue in the 2012 Farm Bill.
Administrator Pegg’s testimony included mention of funding for that National Organic Program to develop and oversee products labeled organic. She also said that the Organic Data Initiative provided funding to AMS to increase reporting of organic products in the Market News, which expanded to include 234 organic items by the end of 2009, and has expanded to include advertised specials on organic products in the weekly National Fruit and Vegetable Retail Report.
Other issues discussed during the hearing are as follows:
- Block grants and their mechanisms, safeguards and problems;
- Allowable educational and marketing activities under block grants;
- AMS’s efforts to ensure SNAP benefits can be used at farmers markets;
- The proliferation of Electronic Benefits Transfers at farmers markets;
- The devastating impact of citrus green on citrus crops across the country and measures being taken to combat its spread;
- The flexibility of block grants to address the specific agricultural needs of each state;
- The use of Section 32 funds for disaster relief;
- The trend of decreasing pesticide use among American farmers;
- The efficacy of Department of Defense management of purchasing foods for federal nutrition assistance programs; and
- The ways in which USDA establishes and manages different pest and disease risks.
A replay of the hearing, testimony, and the Subcommittee press release can be read here.
The Senate has yet to take up the appropriations process, as the Senate Budget Committee has not passed a budget. As you have seen in the news, discussions between Congress and the President are ongoing to increase the debt limit and reduce the deficit. A budget is not expected in the Senate until a deal is reached on the debt ceiling.