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Inside The Beltway -- July '98

Ag policy update from the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group.

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red ballAg Approps Agonistes: A Tragic Opera in Three Movements
red ballCFO Woes Continue
red ballCorps Nat’l Wetlands Permits
red ballCredit Bill News & Action Needed
red ballFood Quality Protection Act
red ballCRP’s Under-achieving Continuous Sign-up
red ballUSDA Hearing on Future Ag “Initiative”
red ballCampaign Organic Letter
red ballMoving & Shaking

red ballPrevious editions of Inside the Beltway

Inside the Beltway is Sustainable Farming Connection's online version of the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group's Washington Report. We reproduce it with MSAWG's permission. Do not reproduce or post to any electronic network without specific permission. Contact Brad DeVries bdevries@cais.com for more information.

red ballAg Approps Agonistes

Appropriations -- Take One

The Senate spent most of the week of July 13th on the agriculture appropriations bill. The action focused primarily on the new farm "crisis" and the competing plans for addressing it (see story below), with attention also paid to export and sanctions policy as well as tobacco legislation. And, oh yeah, while they were at it they did a few things actually germane to the bill like discretionary spending levels for USDA programs for 1999.

(Congressional Budget Process 101: The Appropriations bills are only supposed to set spending levels for discretionary federal programs, and nothing else. No setting policy, no messing with mandatory funded programs like the Fund, CFO, Social Security, etc., no monkey business. Of course the Appropriations Committees’ control of the federal checkbook means that they routinely ignore these bounds and cheerfully trample on others’ legislative, executive or divine authority. What’s the difference between God and a member of the Appropriations Committee? God doesn’t think he’s a member of the Appropriations Committee.)

We undertook three major efforts and a couple of minor ones for Senate floor action. Starting with the good news first (and our only action related to discretionary spending), we were successful in increasing Direct Farm Ownership loan funds (70% targeted to beginning farmers) from the Committee's level of $63 million up to the full farm bill level of $85 million. The offset was internal to farm credit -- the extra funding was diverted from "credit sale" funds for sale of inventory property. USDA will still be able to sell inventory to beginning farmers with the DFO funds, so the amendment, sponsored by Senator Bumpers (D-AR) with support from Sen. Harkin (D-IA), is a big net plus. The House level is $75 million, so now we must fight to prevail in conference. We also want the Senate level on direct operating loans -- $560 million vs. $500 million in the House bill.

Second on our list was trying to restore funding for the Conservation Farm Option and the Fund for Rural America, two of our mandatory spending farm bill "wins" in extreme danger of being snuffed out. As you will recall, we successfully restored funding in the House bill at the Committee level, only to have it taken away during floor consideration when Secretary Glickman supported wiping it out to come up with needed funds for civil rights litigation related to minority farmers.

Like the final House bill, the Senate Committee provided no funding for CFO or FRA. Despite great effort and numerous attempts to get something going, in the end we got just a bit better than nothing. Senator Bumpers did squeeze in a provision listing a dozen or so programs, including CFO and FRA, that should receive funding if the total funding allocated to the agriculture bill increases -- an unlikely prospect.

For all those of you who responded to action alerts and contacted USDA and the Vice President's office, please know that the Administration, in stark contrast to its not-so-benign neglect during House consideration of the bill, did speak forcefully to both the Fund and CFO in its official communication to the Senate. But, as they say, it was much too little and late.

Our hopes for conference committee are dim, but not extinguished. The main focus will likely be on what happens with the new research bill's "Initiative on Future Agriculture and Food Systems" which is left unscathed in the Senate bill ($120 million) but knocked out entirely in the House bill. With the Initiative up for grabs in conference, there may be some consideration of a more equal distribution of cuts.

We also lent support for efforts to minimize the cuts to the Wetlands Reserve Program and to find new funding for the Farmland Protection Program. No new funds were forthcoming for FPP (which has already used all $35 million allocated to it by the farm bill), though it did get on the list of worthy programs to support if an additional allocation is forthcoming.

The WRP, already cut from 165,000 acres to 140,000 acres in the Committee bill, was the "cash cow" offset for numerous proposed or rumored amendments. In the end, it took only one additional hit -- a reduction to 120,000 acres -- to help pay for a move to restore full crop insurance subsidies to the largest farms in the country, primarily in California and the South.

The recently-signed research bill had taken the bold step of making the fee schedule for crop insurance modestly progressive, but not, evidently, modest enough for some cotton and fruit and vegetable growers and their well paid lobbyists. The appropriations language puts the new schedule on hold for 1999 while providing long-term employment for the lobbyists who can now fight to postpone it each year, with a large run-up in billable hours.

The Administration got its top two priorities taken care of. Senator Robb (D-VA) succeeded, with no debate, to pass the Glickman-backed amendment to waive off the statute of limitations for civil rights complaints. Without CFO available for the offset as it was in the House, the Secretary backed an offset package that included $5 million each from the National Research Initiative (reducing it to $92 million), animal quarantine inspection, and the USDA computer purchase account. They also worked with CBO to revise the estimate of what was needed for FY 99 to just $15 million ($42 million over 3 years), so that's all they needed for this year's bill. The waiver will allow minority farmers to try to collect from USDA for past discrimination abuses related to commodity programs, farm credit, disaster payments and the like.

Senator Harkin did the bidding on the Administration's Food Safety Initiative to the tune of $66 million, of which $33 is for research (pathogen detection technology, new vaccines, etc.) and $28 is for additional inspectors. The offset includes higher assessments on tobacco growers to pay for the costs of administering the tobacco program and for net losses for crop insurance on tobacco, plus another $15 million from the computer account and $13 million from delaying some ARS lab building and renovation projects for a year. Food safety is hot election year topic, and the amendment passed 65-34. Had it failed, the offsets would have been available for a conservation amendment including CFO.

Appropriations -- Take Two

The struggling farm economy has become a major election year issue, heightened by concerns of both parties that a dozen or so competitive farm district House races could help decide whether the GOP retains control. For this reason, the Senate action on appropriations became the stage for the first major revisiting of the farm bill since its passage in 1996. The wheat state Democrats lost their bid, on a strictly party line vote, to raise the loan rate and extend the loan repayment period, but were successful in other efforts.

Most importantly and surprising was a 49-49 winning vote for a 3 -year pilot on mandatory cattle price reporting, approved despite the strong opposition of National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the industry. The crossover GOP votes were cattle state Senators Thomas and Enzi (WY), Burns (MT), and Grams (MN) and, for whatever reason, Senators Santorum (PA) and Stevens (AL).

This was a particularly sweet victory for the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) -- and, of course, livestock producers -- after so much stalling by USDA over whether to move forward with new price reporting rules.

Also approved by voice vote was a "country of origin" meat labeling amendment sponsored by Senator Johnson (D-SD). And, after years of trying, Senator Daschle (D-SD) passed, without debate, a CRP haying and grazing 5-year pilot project for 7 unnamed states, despite continued opposition from NCBA, the Farm Bureau, and many wildlife groups. We will work to perfect the language to make it more suitable for rotational grazing and for partial field enrollments in case the provision survives conference, though our language is opposed by the same guys who oppose the underlying provision, making it a tough sell.

Perhaps the biggest news out of the Senate action was the approval of $500 million in disaster payments, with unanimous agreement between Hill Democrats, Republicans and the Administration to count it as "emergency spending" and thus obviate the need for an offset. In order to pull this off, a legal fiction had to be developed to sidestep the budget act which specifically forbids "emergency" status for disaster payments.

Aren't election years grand!

Needless to say, as the debate proceeded, more and more states came to the mike to say, yes, they too had a disaster that needed some cash. Pity USDA trying to figure out a formula to carve up the pie! At least there is a common understanding that about half of the total should be set-aside for the incredibly hard-hit areas of the Northern Plains.

One of the more entertaining, if completely meaningless, debates was over a "sense of the Senate" resolution by Senator Grassley (R-IA) putting the Senate on record in support of the "big ten" wish list of the Farm Bureau and many of the commodity organizations: IMF bailout, MNF status for China, fast track renewal, more export subsidies, reducing unfair trading practices by other countries, abolition of capital gains taxes, abolition of estate taxes, special new farmer IRAs, reduced environmental regulations, -- and did we happen to mention more export subsidies. This bundle of joy passed 71-28 with the "no" votes primarily coming from members of both parties who have problems with China or fast track.

On a somewhat more serious basis, the Senate debated at length several legislative provisions to reform export sanction policy, including amendments by Sen. Lugar (R-IN), Harkin, and others. These all lost in deference to an ad hoc working group of Senators who are attempting to come up with a "comprehensive" sanctions policy.

Not to be outdone by the Senate, House Speaker Gingrich and Ag Committee Chair Bob Smith announced a plan to pass legislation to release FY 99 Freedom to Farm "AMTA" payments on the first day of the fiscal year, October 1. Under the 1996 farm bill, farmers would normally receive their commodity program payments half in January and half in September. If the action on appropriations is any indication, this will pass quickly and be signed into law.

Appropriations -- Take Three

With an appropriations bill so full of non-germane legislative amendments rather than spending ones, we would be remiss if we did not mention several others with relevance to our agenda. First, unbeknownst to us until just before it was happening, Senators Feingold (D-WI) and Jeffords (R-VT) pushed an amendment -- accepted without debate -- setting up the Office of Small Farm Advocate, with a Administrator (political appointee requiring consent of the Senate). It must be funded from within existing resources, so it won't be much of an office, but the amendment nonetheless tracks one of the recommendations of the Small Farm Commission. USDA is currently considering nominees for a similar position.

Senator Hatch (R-UT) snuck in a provision directing USDA to make a recommendation pro or con allowing interstate trade for state-inspected meat by March of next year and was also promised a hearing on this subject by Chairman Lugar. This issue has come up several times at MSAWG meetings, and we now might have a chance to intervene if we can develop a consensus policy and approach.

On an unhappy note, there was bad news on farm credit legislative front. Senators Coverdell (R-GA) and Cleland (D-GA) took some of the bad House Agriculture Committee-passed provisions from the recently marked up credit bill (see story below) and added them to the appropriations, including most importantly the evisceration of the family farm requirement for subsidized loans.

Several years back USDA tried to do a similarly misguided change which we were able to block after great effort. This move, if we cannot defeat it, could open the flood gates to loans for large-scale confinement livestock operations and big vegetable growers, among others. For action ideas, see story on credit below.

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red ballConservation Farm Option Woes Mount

In addition to the probable loss of funding for FY 99 (see appropriations story above), the CFO has other problems as well.

Despite the clear interest in the program in the field -- as demonstrated by the $52 million in proposed projects coming in from 31 states even though the sign-up period was short and information on the program in county offices almost non-existent -- the FY 98 rendition of CFO remains in great jeopardy.

The $11 million available for CFO this fiscal year must be obligated to participating farmers by September 30. The awards process is underway at USDA and should be completed very soon, but the awards cannot be announced until the final rule is published in the Federal Register. The rule is still at the Department, and when they finish, it must go to the Office and Management and Budget for approval. At best, this puts the announcement off to mid to late August, at which point projects that are awarded will have just a month to sign up individual farmers, get plans and contracts approved by NRCS, and checks cut from FSA -- an all but impossible timeline.

We have urged the Department to accept all of the individual farmer proposals that have merit, since those can be approved more rapidly and meet the deadline. The greater problem will be with group proposals. We will mount an effort in the context of the appropriations bill conference committee to secure legislative language to waive the September 30 deadline. If successful, that would allow the $11 million to be fully utilized with a reasonable turnaround time. If not, we may lose out yet again on CFO. Almost has us wishing for the good old days of battling USDA over the Integrated Farm Management program!

Meanwhile, we have reviewed all 33 sets of comments received on the CFO proposed rule. Of those, at least seven organizational and six individual comments tracked the issues raised in our action alert, in addition to raising related concerns. Thanks to all who responded! The comments were particularly strong on third party payments to NGOs, whole farm planning, clear transition rules from CRP, WRP and EQIP, and inclusion of explicit language on sustainable agriculture practices and systems.

Of the others who commented, a few highlights follow:

  • A joint letter from the Farm Bureau, NFU, and the commodity organizations raised two issues, recommending all CFO plans be strictly confidential and that NRCS and the Fish and Wildlife Service reach a cooperative agreement to provide "safe harbor" assurances for any wildlife enhancements achieved through CFO.

  • The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture also weighed in on the importance of confidentiality and recommended MOUs with government agencies at all levels to reduce or eliminate potential farmer liability under environmental regulations.

  • The South Dakota Department of Agriculture asked to be allowed to run the program, including via contracts with private businesses.

  • The National Association of Conservation Districts raised several issues, including a plea to run CFO without "interference" from the State Technical Committees, a request for more local (District) control on ranking proposals, and a recommendation to reduce the time involved in developing applications.

  • The National Audubon Society recommended that no WRP easements be abrogated in the process of shifting to a CFO contract.

  • The Farm*A*Syst program urged greater emphasis on "assessment and planning" activities as part of CFO, including the explicit use of Farm*A*Syst.

  • The Ag Retailers Association recommended flexibility to allow CFO farmers to change crop rotation mixes over the contract period as needed and asked for greater clarity on the role of qualified crop consultants in CFO.

  • The Michigan State Technical Committee urged that land retirement through CFO should still have to go through the regular CRP sign-up.

Not surprisingly, many individuals and some organizations who actually went through the proposal process commented on the lack of knowledge about the program at the field and state offices, the application form's lack of clarity, the exceedingly short time period given to put together a proposal, and the poor timing (planting season).

Some help may be on the way. NRCS is putting together a program manual concurrently with the drafting of the final rule. In addition, a CFO director within NRCS will be appointed later this summer.

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red ballCorps National Wetlands Permits

On July 1, 1998, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a request for comments on its proposal to phase out Nationwide General Permit (NWP) No. 26 and replace it with a revamped Nationwide General Permit Program. See 63 Federal Register 36040 (July 1, 1998). Preliminary impressions from other federal agencies charged with wetlands protection duties and environmental groups who saw a draft of the new proposal indicate that the new program may allow even more wetland destruction than the severely flawed NWP No. 26 it is intended to replace.

For example, NWP No. 26 was limited to isolated wetlands and wetlands above the headwaters of streams. The 6 new nationwide permits and the 6 modified permits included in the proposed program are much broader geographcally, extending to all non-tidal wetlands and in some cases even to tidal wetlands. The Army Corps also intends to extend NWP No. 26 until March 28, 1999. Currently, NWP 26 is scheduled to expire on December 13, 1998.

We plan on submitting comments on the proposed Nationwide Permit program, particularly the proposal to significantly broaden the scope of NWP 40 which concerns agricultural activities. Comments on the Army Corps proposal to extend NWP 26 until March 28, 1999 must be submitted by July 31, 1998.

Comments on the proposed new and modified NWPs must be submitted by August 31, 1998. The address for submitting comments is: HQUSACE, CECW-OR, Washington, D.C. 20314-1000.

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red ballCredit Bill News & Action Needed

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Farm Credit Fix.

Responding to the civil rights and small farm commission reports, Secretary Glickman proposed legislation to change the 1996 farm bill to allow farmers who previously received debt forgiveness under the terms of the 1987 credit act to qualify for another government loan and to be eligible for future debt restructuring.

Senator Robb attached this language to the supplemental appropriations bill earlier this year, but it was deleted in conference with the House in part because of its cost. Robb tried again and won again on the regular appropriations bill. This time he stripped out the chance for future restructuring and thus eliminated the cost. This will now go to conference committee for final disposition.

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture subcommittee that deals with credit decided to mark-up credit legislation. Instead of the USDA proposed language, however, the House bill would only allow a second chance for farmers receiving commercial loans guaranteed by the government, not direct loans. This version would greatly diminish the universe of potential restored borrowers. That "less than half a loaf" measure was only the beginning. The House Subcommittee also approved measures to:

  • Raise the loan limitations on guaranteed operating loans from $400,000 and on guaranteed farm ownership loans from $300,000 to a combined $700,000 in any combination, with the new combined limit indexed for inflation.

    This provision, sponsored by Rep. Chip Pickering, Jr. (R-MS), would result in fewer, larger loans. This would be damaging at any time, but is particularly so now that demand for guarantees on farm ownership loans within the current loan limitation is at least 150% greater than the supply of appropriated dollars. The waiting list and the number of farmers not being served would grow in order to make room for a small number of $500,000 to $700,000 loans. The same problem would occur for operating loans now that appropriations levels are being set at actual use levels.

    In addition to increasing the number of unserved customers, the new higher limitation would make a mockery of the avowed public purpose for government involvement in the first place, namely to offer limited, modest, and temporary assistance to limited resource and other family farms unable to secure sufficient credit elsewhere to make a start in agriculture. Until now, at least, the purpose has not been to make large loans to enable purchase of full scale large commercial operations whose credit needs have been traditionally left to the private market.

    Moreover, in FY 97, the average guaranteed operating loan was $110,000, or just 28% of the existing loan limitation. Likewise, guaranteed ownership loans averaged $170,000, 57% of the existing limitation. These levels have remained fairly stable for a long period of time and provide no indication that an increase is warranted.

  • Weaken existing guidelines for determining family-size farm eligibility for government supported loans.

    By law, direct, guaranteed, and emergency loans may only be made to not larger than family-sized farms who are unable to obtain credit commercially. Under current administrative rules and guidelines, to qualify the members of the farm family must make all of the day-to-day management and operational decisions and provide a substantial amount of the full time labor. The guidelines note that in most areas of the country the family members will provide a majority of the labor, but exceptions to the "majority of labor" rule of thumb are made for high-value, labor- intensive crops. Even in those exceptions, however, the family must provide both labor and management.

    The new provision, sponsored by Cal Dooley (D-CA), would change the "all decision making" test to participation in "overall decision making," change the labor test to participation in "routine, ongoing farm activities," and specifically prevent FSA from using a "majority of full time labor test" anywhere in the country.

    This amendment tries to solve some perceived problems in California with a sledgehammer approach that opens the floodgates to the use of taxpayer subsidies for large-scale farming operations everywhere, including concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The family farm test has been one of the defenses the agency has used in some states against such unwarranted loans. Together with the provision to raise the loan limits, this steers the program far away from its public purpose.

  • Prohibit FSA from denying loans to contract growers of perishable commodities.

    This provision, also sponsored by Cal Dooley (D-CA), would prevent USDA from insisting on hands-length arrangements in determining eligibility for loans. While it only deals with fruit and vegetable growers, it also opens the door to future consideration of contract livestock operations.

  • Prohibit FSA from requiring a specific amount of collateral to secure an emergency loan if ability to repay can be demonstrated.

    This provision, sponsored by Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), is just plain anti-good government and sound administration.

  • Allow additional direct emergency loans even if the farmer previously had debt forgiven.

    While this is not necessarily a bad provision, it demonstrated a good deal of bad faith on the part of the majority of the subcommittee who had already voted down allowing regular direct loans for farmers in the same situation, as proposed by the Small Farm Commission and others. This amendment was sponsored by Saxby Chambliss.

The subcommittee also approved two good amendments. The first, offered on our behalf by Rep. David Minge (D-MN), would fix a 1996 farm bill provision which limited beginning farmers to less than five years worth of operating loans. The Minge provision would return to previous law, allowing up to ten years. Also approved was a Rep. John Baldacci (D-ME) amendment to give farmer-owned, value-added processing enterprises priority status business and industry loans and grants.

In Senate floor action on appropriations, three House provisions were tacked onto the bill by Senators Coverdell (R-GA) and Cleland (D-GA): the weakening of the family farm definition, the prohibition on requiring collateral, and the emergency loan eligibility restoration.

Action is needed now to contact all Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee members to support inclusion of the Robb amendment and oppose inclusion of the Coverdell/Cleland anti- family farm amendment. Also, all members of the House Agriculture Committee and other farm district Representatives should be called on to oppose the provisions to raise the loan limits, weaken the family farm definition, and endorse subsidizing of contract farming.

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red ballFood Quality Protection Act

The third Tolerance Reassessment Advisory Committee (TRAC) meeting in Washington on July 13 and 14 produced surprise substantive developments in addition to the anticipated verbal jousting.

In a move applauded by the pesticide industry, the EPA released a list of eight FQPA science policy issues for which it will publish guidances starting this fall. Unhappy with the preliminary approaches EPA outlined for FQPA implementation, pesticide supporters wanted a formal comment opportunity which publishing the guidances will provide.

The issues in question include when to apply the tenfold safety factor to protect children, the models used to project dietary, residential and drinking water exposure, how to estimate aggregate exposure and how to determine cumulative risk assessment for a common method of toxicity.

In criticizing the EPA, pesticide supporters had challenged the validity of the data and the models the Agency uses in risk assessment. Calling for improved science and more comprehensive data is consistent with the pesticide industry’s strategy of delaying FQPA implementation until the cows come home, and then some.

On the other hand, environmental, consumer and farmworker TRAC members did win their argument on behalf of greater public participation in the preliminary risk assessments which EPA conducts on new and reregistered active ingredients. Under current procedures, the registrant has two opportunities to review EPA’s work and make technical corrections as well as challenge underlying assumptions.

In a new policy announced by EPA Deputy Administrator Fred Hansen, EPA will now provide registrants one thirty day period to correct errors of a mathematical, computational or typographical nature only. Any challenges to the assumptions behind the assessment will be noted but no changes will be made until the full preliminary assessment is published for public comment.

The pesticide industry is concerned that release of preliminary findings, which are rough estimates, will alarm the public and damage the reputation of their products. The sustainable agriculture and environmental advocates on the TRAC argued that the public, which is often unknowingly and involuntarily exposed to these substances, deserves prompt disclosure of what the government knows about the safety of the products.

These developments are one sign that the wheels of the TRAC are showing some sign of movement no matter how deep the mud that surrounds them. The work of the TRAC has been broken down into two subgroups, one for Risk Assessment and one for Risk Management. With Risk Assessment, the opposing sides are fighting over pretty traditional ground: who is getting exposed to how much of what. This is where the data/modeling issues are most in debate. Does the EPA have sufficient information to act or will a time consuming data call in be necessary?

Risk Management entails finding ways to reduce exposure should aggregate levels exceed what is allowed. Which pesticide uses to prohibit or which tolerances to withdraw represents unchartered water for regulators; traditionally uses and tolerances were dealt with individually. Risk Management promises to be a far more challenging and unpredictable debate. This is especially true because the science behind one of FQPA’s most revolutionary provisions -- treating cumulatively the exposures of all compounds found to share a common mode of toxicity -- has yet to be fleshed out. Look for Risk Management issues to become the increasing focus of debate at the next TRAC meeting (July 28) and the FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel (July 29-30). A fifth TRAC meeting is scheduled for September 15-16.

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red ballCRP’s Underachieving Sign-up

It was a simpler, happier time, back in the old days when Secretary Glickman was promising to bring 8 million acres of high-priority enrollments into the CRP under the new Continuous Sign-up. Like most of the dreams of youth, this one did not fare very well with time and experience. First, the target shrank to 5.5 million acres, with only 4 of that actually designated for general continuous enrollment, about a million for the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and the balance of half a million for miscellaneous enrollments, such as retirements under CFO, should this dream (we too were once young!) ever come to pass.

Sad to say, anemic performance on the continuous sign-up may leave us reminiscing in our dotage for the days of that 5.5 million acre target. The Secretary just announced that CRP had enrolled only 618,888 acres (about 34,000 acres more than the last announcement in February) of high-priority practices under the continuous sign-up, and a good chunk of those are pretty disappointing.

Of these 618,000 acres, the practices break out as follows:

Filter Strip 221,919
Riparian Buffer 46,081
Wind Break 5,704
Wind Strip 48
Grass Waterway 12,104
Shallow Water for Wildlife 2,434
Contour Grass Strip 12,506
Salt-Tolerant Vegetation 208,830
Wellhead Protection 106,140
Other 21,952

(Note: These figures add up to about 18,000 more than the total figure USDA claims, so there may be some overlap in categories, or else their math skills are even worse than ours. State-by-state category breakdowns are available in the USDA’s news release at http://www.usda.gov/news/releases/1998/07/0276, if you want to try your hand at correcting their arithmetic.)

If the line for salt-tolerant vegetation caught your eye, it should. Virtually all of these acres are in Montana (141,064) and North Dakota (54,267), and mean that essentially a third of the acres brought in under continuous enrollment are less about high-priority conservation, and more about federally-subsidized retirements for high plains farms with questionable fertilizer practices. As for wellhead protection, just shy of 90,000 of those acres are in South Dakota.

Since even grown-ups and hard-bitten fact-facers need a bit of good news now and again, here it is: the Midwest states of Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois have done a fairly good job of bringing in filter strip and riparian buffer acres, and modestly well at bringing in grass waterways and other practices SAC has championed for the continuous sign up. Washington State also accounts for a significant number of acres in these categories. Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio also accounted for some of these high-priority sign-ups.

Clearly, the size and scope of the education and outreach efforts not to mention our long ignored call for bonus payments for high-priority sign-ups must increase if the promise of partial field enrollments is ever to be fulfilled. MSAWG may want to take a much more direct role in this effort.

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red ballUSDA Hearing on Research Initiative

Even as the ink was still drying from the President's signature on the new research bill and while the funding was totally up for grabs in the appropriations process, USDA held a public hearing and opened a public comment period on the 5-year, $600 million "Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems."

The Initiative, created by Senator Lugar (R-IN), has quickly become the darling of the research wing of the Department and its land grant partners. By holding the public hearing at this critical juncture, the Administration was sending a strong signal on its unstated but implicit preference for the Initiative compared to its older sister, the Fund for Rural America. Strange politics, but then again not out of the ordinary for USDA.

Our very own Ferd Hoefner testified at the July 9th hearing on behalf of the Coalition. Additional written comments will also be submitted by the July 24th deadline. In addition to criticizing the Department's misguided appropriations lobbying on the Fund and CFO, the testimony and oral remarks also included implementation recommendations for the Initiative calling on USDA to:

  • Require clear plans for direct integration of research and extension in each project awarded funding.

  • Implement the bulk of the Initiative through a nationally coordinated, but regionally administered structure.

  • Give priority to multi-institutional public-private research/education partnerships that include non-governmental and non-university organizations and other non-traditional partners.

  • Include farmers in a very substantial way in the evaluation panels selected to review and rank proposals.

  • Develop a set of Initiative implementation guidelines, open to public review and comment.

  • Set-aside no less than 50 percent of Initiative funding for projects that help solve the most critical environmental and farm income problems simultaneously.

  • Give significant attention to agroecological projects as well as research and education on marketing alternatives and locally owned value-adding enterprise development.

  • Give high priority to the Initiative's special emphasis on the competitiveness of small and medium-sized farms.

  • Achieve substantial progress on the research recommendations of the Secretary's National Commission on Small Farms.

  • Implement the new "Coordinated Program of Research, Extension, and Education to Improve the Viability of Small and Medium Size Dairy, Livestock, and Poultry Operations" with funding from the Initiative.

  • Link the Initiative closely with the environmental research agenda under consideration in the soon-to-be-announced USDA- EPA Joint Strategy on Animal Feeding Operations to help create sustainable livestock systems.

  • Within the future food production emphasis, give significant emphasis be given to genetic diversity and preservation.

  • With regard to the mission area on new uses and production, give significant emphasis be placed on new crops and crop diversification research.

  • Link the Initiative to the sustainable agriculture research agenda of the President's Commission on Sustainable Development and the USDA Sustainable Development Council.
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red ballCampaign Organic Letter

The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture is pushing the USDA to honor Secretary Glickman’s pledge to publish organic standards which the sustainable agriculture community can embrace.

On June 1, the Campaign sent the Secretary a letter supporting his decision to fundamentally re-write the Proposed Rule for the National Organic Program in light of the overwhelming public rejection of the initial draft. The letter was co-signed by more than forty organizations representing a truly national coalition of farming, consumer and environmental interests. The Campaign committed itself to working with USDA to turn the tone and substance of Glickman’s decision into meaningful improvements in the standards.

The letter included five specific suggestions: reaffirm the central and historic role of the NOSB, publish a plan for review of the nearly 300,000 public comments, compile a definitive market analysis of the organic industry, strengthen the National Organic Program office and establish a realistic timeline to publish a new proposal.

The Campaign believes that with the right resources and the right commitment, a revised Rule can be published in early 1999. So far, the Department has indicated that the next draft will be published as a Proposed Rule which would invite a new round of public comment. The Campaign has not received an official response from the USDA but there will be an opportunity to meet when the Campaign’s Organic Committee comes to DC following July’s NOSB meeting.

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red ballMoving & Shaking
  • Mark your calendars the Third MSAWG Annual Gathering is scheduled for January 22-24, 1999 at the Bishop O’Conner Catholic Pastoral Center in Madison, Wisconsin. We’ll see you there!

  • On July 13, Secretary Glickman announced the appointment of Rosalind Gray to be USDA’s new director of civil rights. Gray comes to the post from her work as a civil rights consultant, and before that as the deputy general counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Gray replaces Pearlie Reed, who moved from the USDA civil rights office to become Chief of the NRCS.

  • The Soil and Water Conservation Society has issued a call for posters and displays for a national conference on “The State of North America’s Private Land,” scheduled for January 19-21 in Chicago Illinois. The brochure describes a broad array of topics for presentation, including Land, Water, Air, Plants and Animals, Communities/Systems/Watersheds, as well as Structural and Social Economic Indicators. Questions about proposals should be directed to Charlie Persinger at (515) 289-8938 or charliep@swcs.org.

  • The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has just released “Fields of Change: A New Crop of American Farmers Finds Alternatives to Pesticides,” which profiles 22 commercially viable farms around the country and documents how these farms are reducing pesticide use while maintaining or increasing profitability. Copies of the report are available for $14 (plus $3 shipping and handling) from NRDC at (212) 727-2700.
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