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USDA kicks off a series of Farm Bill Implementation Listening Sessions. Shown here: a Farm Service Agency meeting in south Texas. Photo credit: USDA

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 remarks, RMA remarks, NRCS 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 program, Farmers’ 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.

The post USDA Listening Sessions Offer Opportunities for Stakeholder Engagement in Farm Bill Implementation appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (shown here) travelled to Capitol Hill this week to speak to Congress about implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill. Photo Credit: US News

This week, Congress started a new chapter in the 2018 Farm Bill process: oversight of the Department’s implementation efforts. The passage and signing of the new farm bill at the end of last year marked the conclusion of the bill’s “authorization phase,” and now that the fiscal year (FY) 2019 appropriations bill is finally in place, all eyes in the food and farm world have turned toward implementation and oversight.

This “secondary phase” allows all stakeholders (not just Congress and the Administration, but also farmers and food producing communities) an additional opportunity to shape the many programs and policies included in the final 2018 Farm Bill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is tasked with implementing the programs and policies of the farm bill, while Congress is charged with overseeing and funding that process. Stakeholders, of course, are directly affected by the decisions that Congress and USDA makes, and should take advantage of any and all opportunities for engagement. Many important details are left out of authorizing legislation, which means that those decisions are left to the implementing agencies.

Oversight of the implementation of farm bill programs by Congress is critically important to ensuring that the intent of the legislation is followed. It is also important for farmers, ranchers, and other stakeholders to be involved in the implementation process – there will be many opportunities for stakeholder input on rulemaking and other administrative decisions – so that farm bill programs adequately meet the needs of their intended constituents – primarily farmers and those that support them!

A series of congressional hearings formally kicked off the farm bill’s implementation and administrative phase this week, with USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue making a trip to Capitol Hill. This marked the first time that the Secretary has come before a congressional committee since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. In the following post, NSAC summarizes the key takeaways from those initial hearings, and assesses what impact Congress’ and the Secretary’s statements might have on this next stage of the 2018 Farm Bill.

House Agriculture Committee Hearing

On Wednesday, February 27, Secretary Perdue was the only witness for a hearing before the House Committee on Agriculture titled, “The State of the Rural Economy.” The hearing was not specifically billed as a farm bill implementation and oversight hearing, but it was clearly a topic on many Committee Members’ minds. In particular, Committee Members pushed the Secretary to explain how the farm bill is (or isn’t) addressing the precarious state of the farm economy.

Within the discussion of the overall declining farm economy, the crisis that has been affecting the dairy industry took center stage. During the hearing, Secretary Perdue made a number of important announcements regarding the 2018 Farm Bill’s Dairy Margin Coverage program. According to the Secretary, premium refunds related to the ineffective Margin Protection Program from the 2014 Farm Bill will begin towards the end of April 2019. Sign up for the new Dairy Margin Coverage Program will begin in June 2019. In addition to the dairy crisis, concerns about the impact of the trade dispute with China and tariffs on American commodity exports were also top agenda items for several Members.

In addition to announcing target dates for the dairy programs, Secretary Perdue made a number of other announcements regarding implementation of farm bill programs. The Secretary announced that sign-ups for commodity programs is set to begin on September 1, 2019,  and that general enrollment for the Conservation Reserve Program will begin December 1, 2019. Additionally, tentative plans to develop regulations surrounding agricultural hemp production were also announced. The plans, which were cheered by many farmers and rural communities that have lost economic opportunities because of decades of prohibition, are said to be in place by the 2020 growing season.

Whereas the updates on the Dairy Margin Coverage Program and other farm bill programs were largely met with bipartisan support, there was one issue on which there was clearly strong disagreement – USDA’s proposed rule to make changes to the Supplementation Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regarding benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). USDA’s SNAP proposal was included in the House’s draft farm bill, but was not included in the Senate bill or in the final conference package. Democrats in this week’s Committee hearing repeatedly criticized that proposal, which would make it harder for states to get approval to waive SNAP work requirements for ABAWDs. After the hearing, the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture Democrat Collin Peterson (D-MN) went so far as to say “I’ll guarantee you it’s not going to happen,” regarding the proposal’s chances of moving forward.

Democrats on the committee also grilled Secretary Perdue about the Administration’s proposed effort to relocate and reorganize the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service. Specifically, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), and Jahana Hayes (D-CT) all expressed concerns that largely mirrored those raised by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and our allies since the proposal was introduced. Despite this widespread concern from Members and the broader scientific community, Secretary Perdue continued to defend the move in this week’s hearing, drawing on previous talking points that the move would save taxpayer dollars – though a specific cost-benefit analysis has yet to be released from the Department defending this claim.

Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry

After spending several hours on Wednesday in front of Members of the House Committee on Agriculture, on Thursday Secretary Perdue returned to the Hill to speak with their counterparts in the Senate. While the House hearing was more generally focused on the rural economy, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry hearing was squarely focused on farm bill implementation. Unsurprisingly, however, the state of the dairy industry and ongoing negative impacts of tariffs and the trade war repeatedly came up in comments from both Republican and Democratic Senators.

Over the course of the hearing, several Senators spoke to NSAC priorities on conservation programs and activities. NSAC would like to thank Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) for discussing with the Secretary how the new provisions of the 2018 Farm Bill will address water quality issues. All three Members spoke to the Clean Lakes, Estuaries, and Rivers (CLEAR) initiative within CRP; additionally, Senator Ernst spoke about the important role that working lands conservation programs – including the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program – play in helping beginning farmers to address on-farm resource concerns.

Like their House colleagues, many Senate Democrats also expressed their displeasure with USDA’s proposed rule restricting SNAP work requirement waivers for ABAWDs. Senate Democrats went so far as to accuse the Secretary of attempting an end-around Congress, noting that the inclusion of related provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill was debated and those changes were intentionally not included in the bill. Senate Democrats also chastised the Secretary for announcing the SNAP proposal on the same day in December that the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law.

Final Notes

NSAC will continue to monitor and actively report on the implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill and key engagement opportunities as the process moves forward. For a list of past and upcoming USDA “Implementation Listening Sessions,” click here. To learn more about key issues that NSAC is following, check out our most recent series of “deep dive” blogs, and sign-up for our weekly policy newsletter for regular updates.  

The post Congressional Hearings Kick Off Farm Bill Implementation Phase appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce tell NSAC members about their organic produce operation. Photo credit: Reana Kovalcik.

Last week, the House and Senate were finally able to agree on and finalize spending levels for the seven remaining appropriations bills not yet signed into law – including funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The final appropriations bill for fiscal year (FY) 2019 passed by both chambers last week provides funding for the covered agencies through the end of September this year (when the current fiscal year expires).

The spending package was the product of months of negotiations between Congress and the White House, including the longest government shutdown in history. Nearly five months after the FY 2018 appropriations bill first expired, a deal finally passed the Senate (83-16) and House (300-128) and the President promptly signed the package into law. At the same time that he signed the appropriations bill, the President also declared a national emergency in an attempt to secure additional funding for his border wall.

Securing billions of dollars for the Administration’s border wall had been one of the primary sticking points in the FY 2019 appropriations debates, and one of the core causes of the partial government shutdown. Though we can expect ongoing legal challenges and fights over the national emergency declaration and border wall funding, the passage of the FY 2019 spending package does at least make it possible for USDA and other agencies to get back to full operation capacity and to begin the long process of implementing the new farm bill, and for Congress to begin work on FY 2020 appropriations.

How We Got Here: Background

Each year, Congress passes spending bills to fund discretionary government programs and activities, including those administered by USDA. The FY 2019 appropriations cycle began in February of 2018 with the release of the President’s Budget Proposal, which proposed devastating cuts to sustainable agriculture programs and priorities. Thanks to pressure from advocates like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many others, however, Congress strongly rejected those cuts.

In May 2018, the House and Senate appropriations committees passed their annual agriculture spending bills, which (when considered collectively) protected or increased funding for all of NSAC’s FY 2019 priorities. By early fall, it seemed that appropriators could successfully “conference” (negotiate the differences between) their two agriculture spending bills and pass a final bill before the September 30 fiscal year deadline. Unfortunately, agriculture was not among the package of bills that were passed in “regular order,” which resulted in delays to funding and programming as well as USDA staff shortages just as farm bill implementation was about to get underway.

Now that the Agriculture Appropriations bill has been finalized for the rest of FY 2019, USDA (and farmers, ranchers, and food producing communities across the country) can finally get fully back to business.

Where We Are Now: FY 2019 Appropriations Summary

The FY 2019 minibus provides $23.04 billion in total discretionary funding for USDA and FDA; $32 million above FY 2018 levels. Last year, NSAC helped to secure an overall increase in agriculture spending – Congress passed a two-year budget deal that raised the annual discretionary spending caps for defense and non-defense (including agriculture) programs for two years (FY 2018 and 2019). Although a significant portion of this year’s increase in agriculture spending was focused on rural infrastructure and fighting the opioid epidemic, we also achieved several historic increases in funding for sustainable agriculture priorities. Overall, NSAC is pleased that the final FY 2019 agriculture spending levels build upon the increases gained in FY 2018.

In addition to robust funding for sustainable agriculture priorities, we are also pleased that the final FY 2019 bill includes language pushing back against the Administration’s proposal to relocate and reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

In this post, we analyze how sustainable agriculture fared in the FY 2019 “minibus” across the following issue areas:

For a detailed spreadsheet of FY 2019 funding levels, download our updated appropriations chart.

Conservation and Energy

For the second consecutive year, NSAC helped to ensure an appropriations funding bill free of cuts to mandatory spending for the farm bill’s major working lands conservation programs: the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). NSAC has long fought against “Changes in Mandatory Program Spending” (aka CHIMPS) to farm bill conservation programs in appropriations bills, and we applaud congressional appropriators for once again choosing to protect these critical conservation programs. In this first year of the new farm bill, it is immensely important that the appropriations bill not undermine conservation funding – especially as demand for these programs and services continues to outstrip available funding each year.

In addition to protecting working lands conservation programs, the bill also increases total 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 actual funding level in the final bill appears to decrease both CTA ($725.9 million) and Conservation Operations ($819.5 million) (within which CTA funding is provided,) however, this is only because of some restructuring at USDA. Several NRCS functions have moved to the Business Center within USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area, so these funds for these services that are routed through FPAC’s Business Center must be factored in as well. When combined with the $70.8 million in NRCS funding going through the Businesses Center, total funding comes to $890.3 million for Conservation Operations and $790.9 million for CTA – a slight increase over last year.

The final FY 2019 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 efficient improvements. REAP supports the implementation of wind, solar, and other renewable energy systems, and also provides resources for energy audits and renewable resources development. The 2018 Farm Bill provides $50 million in mandatory funding for REAP per year, maintaining 2014 Farm Bill levels. Unfortunately, the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) did not receive any mandatory funding in this farm bill, and was not provided with any funds through the appropriations process.

Research and Food Safety Outreach

The FY19 spending package makes exciting and historic investments in several key agricultural research and education grant programs. The bill provides the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program – USDA’s flagship sustainable agriculture research program – with $37 million for FY 2019. This funding represents a six percent increase from FY 2018 levels, and is the highest funding level in the program’s 30 year history. NSAC thanks appropriators, particularly Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Pat Leahy (D-VT), for championing increased funding for this landmark program and for continuing to invest in the advancement of American agriculture.

In addition to SARE, the Organic Transitions (ORG) research program also reached its highest funding level in the FY 2019 bill ($6 million). This important funding increase will allow ORG to ramp up its support of the growing contingent of American organic farmers and livestock producers. Increases were also provided for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which received an additional $15 million in grant funding. This brings AFRI funding to $415 million for FY 2019, continuing a trend of significant year-to-year increases for the program – a positive sign for the future of agricultural research and development.

Also provided with a small funding increase ($1 million) was the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP). This brings total FSOP funding to $8 million for FY 2019. With an estimated 100,000 farmers impacted by the new regulations required by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), this increase is particularly timely and welcomed. However, because this increase is so modest, it’s likely that additional increases will be needed as increasingly more producers are affected by new FSMA rules.

Socially Disadvantaged & Veteran Farmers and Ranchers

The 2018 Farm Bill included significant wins for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, including long-term increases to program funding. Among the most significant changes in the bill was the establishment of the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) program, a new umbrella program designed to coordinate USDA training and outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers. Two important USDA grant programs are folded into FOTO: the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka Section 2501”).

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, and has been a top NSAC appropriations priority for the last several years. The 2014 Farm Bill cut program grant funding in half, while also dramatically expanding the program to also serve military veterans.

With the goal of reversing these devastating cuts, NSAC worked with our partners to help secure an important victory for the program in FY 2018: its first allocation of discretionary funding ($3 million) in a decade. The FY 2019 spending bill approved last week once again provides the program with an additional $3 million in discretionary funding, which is combined with $15 million in mandatory funding (half of the $30 million available for FOTO in FY 2019) provided by the 2018 Farm Bill.

Rural Development and Local Food

NSAC was extremely glad to see that rural economic development and local/regional food systems were also protected by Congress in the FY 2019 spending bill. In most cases, level funding or small increases were provided to USDA Rural Development programs that help to drive economic growth and opportunities across rural America. Programs of note include, 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 Value-Added Producer Grants (VAPG).

For the third year in a row, Congress provided VAPG with $15 million in discretionary funding on top of the mandatory funding provided for the program through the 2018 Farm Bill. Small-scale entrepreneurship is the one economic development strategy that consistently works in rural communities. Over half of all new jobs created in most rural areas come from small business ventures, and VAPG helps family farmers and ranchers build and expand these types of businesses in order to boost farm income and create jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Thanks to the leadership of Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Congress also for the first time in over a decade provides discretionary funding for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP). RMAP provides organizations and entities engaged in rural economic development with loan and grant capital to support current rural owner-operator small businesses and prospective entrepreneurs with technical assistance and microloans. The FY 2019 spending package provides RMAP with $3 million. The 2018 Farm Bill, unfortunately, did not renew mandatory funding for the program (the 2014 Farm Bill provided it with $3 million per year), which had cast a cloud of uncertainty over the program’s future.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) received $2 million in funding, double Congress’ previous level of investment in the program. HFFI provides funding to address food deserts and other healthy food access issues.

Local food lovers and family farmers received one more big win in the omnibus, $5 million in additional discretionary funding for the Farm to School Program, which brings total funding to $10 million when combined with mandatory funding. This funding is critically important to continue connecting children with healthy local food, opening new markets for family farmers, and providing innovative agricultural education in schools across the country.

Farm Credit and Support Services

Access to credit is critical for farmers, particularly for those just beginning their careers and for producers not well served by the commercial lending sector. For example, beginning farmers and ranchers rarely have the cash on hand to purchase major equipment or suitable farmland –meaning that many rely on loans to get their food and farm businesses started. 

Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs play an important role by providing financing for producers unable to secure credit from private lenders. For decades, these programs have been vital in providing access to credit for small and mid-size family farms, and for operations run by beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers.

The FY 2019 spending levels for FSA Guaranteed and Direct Operating loans, as well as for Guaranteed Farm Ownership loans are maintained at FY 2018 levels as follows:

  • Direct Operating Loans: $1.53 billion
  • Direct Farm Ownership Loans: $1.5 billion
  • Guaranteed Farm Ownership Loans: $2.75 billion
  • Guaranteed Operating Loans: $1.96 billion

Given the ongoing struggles of the American farm economy, including a prolonged period of low commodity prices, ensuring that FSA has adequate funds to fulfill loan demand is a critical part of the farm safety net. The 2018 Farm Bill increased loan caps across the board for all FSA loan programs, which will ultimately mean fewer and larger loans are made by FSA – unless appropriators provide additional funding through appropriations to meet any short-falls.

This significant policy change in the farm bill could dramatically impact the ability of new and other underserved farmers in particular to access credit and send a devastating ripple effect throughout the farm community. NSAC will continue to closely monitor the availability of FSA loan funding and work with our champions in Congress to make sure farmers have the access to credit and financial planning that they need to start and sustain their businesses.

The new funding bill also provides $2 million in first time funding for the Farm and Ranch Assistance Network – a grant program newly reauthorized in the farm bill that will support mental health and stress assistance to farmers, including farmer helplines, outreach, and support groups.

Proposed ERS/ NIFA Reorganization and Relocation

Appropriators strongly opposed USDA’s plan to relocate and recognize ERS and NIFA in their final FY 2019 bill. Language in the report specifically expresses concern about USDA’s plan, and asks the Department to “delay indefinitely” the proposal to reorganize ERS under the Chief Economist, and to provide a “detailed analysis” and cost estimates of the proposed move of both agencies.

NSAC applauds House and Senate appropriators for acknowledging the justified concerns raised by NSAC and other stakeholders in the agricultural community around this proposal. We also commend our champions in the House going further in attempting to block this opaque and unadvised process by reintroducing the Agriculture Research Integrity Act (ARIA). Championed by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME), ARIA lays the legislative groundwork for Congress’ continued opposition to the ERS and NIFA relocation and restructuring.

Policy Riders

Over the last decade, it has become commonplace for appropriations bills to include legislative riders that set or modify policy, despite a general rule that appropriations bills are funding, not legislative vehicles. However, several policy riders of note were debated in the FY 2019 House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations bills, and an inability to reach agreement on them was one key reason the conferenced bill was not finalized before the September 30, 2018 deadline. Among the non-funding related issues holding up the final bill were riders on: horse slaughter, genetically engineered salmon, cell-based meat, e-cigarettes, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) retail sales data. Ultimately, the final minibus dropped the majority of these policy riders.

Next Steps

With FY 2019 agriculture spending now finally signed into law, the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees in the House and Senate can now turn their attention to developing bills for the next fiscal year. There is a lot that needs to happen before those bills are released and marked up later this spring, however, including the release of the President’s Budget Request (expected mid-March). Congress will also need to reach a deal on the overall budget caps and gather input from stakeholders across the country on FY 2020 priorities.

NSAC will be working with our member organizations and champions on the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees to build upon our wins from FY 2019 and secure continued funding for sustainable food and farm programs in the year ahead. To learn more about NSAC’s appropriations priorities for FY 2020, click here.

The post Sustainable Agriculture Priorities in the FY 2019 Appropriations Bill appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Beginning farmers and military veteran farmers participate in a skill building and training program. Photo credit: University of Arkansas

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a multi-part blog series digging deeper into some of the new programs and policies of the 2018 Farm Bill. These posts detail how the new farm bill is likely to impact core sustainable agriculture programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previous posts focused on: working lands conservation, local and regional food systems, and nutrition incentive and anti-hunger programs.

As farmers across the country scour seed catalogs and begin sketching out plans for the upcoming season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is busy scouring the new farm bill and working out how to stand up the hundreds of new programs and policies mandated by Congress. Included among those is the Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach (FOTO) Program, a new umbrella program designed to coordinate USDA training and outreach to beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged (SDA) farmers.

Thanks to the provision of $435 million in mandatory federal grant funding for FOTO over the next ten years, this new program will be able to permanently protect beginning and SD farmer resources. FOTO will also enable its component programs – the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) and the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (aka “Section 2501”) – to better serve their constituencies by establishing consistency in grant terms, priority for non-profit and community-based organizations, regional balance in funding, external peer review, and a cap on indirect costs for both BFRDP and 2501 grants.

There are, however, some programmatic changes that are complex to navigate. It is important therefore that organizations serving beginning and SD farmer communities understand all of the changes mandated in the new farm bill that will come as part of FOTO, and that they remain active during the implementation process.

In this post, we take a deeper dive into the new FOTO program, outline what changes are in store for future grants, and highlight key questions surrounding program implementation.

What is FOTO?

FOTO is a new initiative established in the 2018 Farm Bill that combines two of USDA’s flagship training and technical assistance programs for beginning and SD producers – BFRDP and Section 2501.

For over a decade, BFRDP has served as the only federal grant program explicitly dedicated to training the next generation of farmers – including veterans and farmers of color. The Section 2501 program is dedicated to helping our nation’s historically underserved producers gain access to USDA credit, commodity, conservation and other programs and services and has been serving these communities for nearly three decades.

Section 12301 of the Agriculture Improvement Act (aka “2018 Farm Bill) establishes FOTO by combining the statutory authorities for BFRDP and 2501 into a single program (now located within the farm bill’s Miscellaneous Title). The broad purpose of FOTO is to “encourage and assist socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, veteran farmers and ranchers, and beginning farmers and ranchers in the ownership and operation of farms and ranches through (1) education and training; and (2) equitable participation in all agricultural programs of the Department” [7 U.S.C. 2279(b)].

While consolidated in law, both BFRDP and Section 2501 will maintain their historic program integrity and continue to be administered separately. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) will continue to administer BFRDP, and the Office of Partnerships and Public Engagement (OPPE) will administer Section 2501.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) was a leading advocate for FOTO, and we were pleased to see that many of the enacted changes to BFRDP and 2501 were reflective of recommendations made in NSAC’s 2018 Farm Bill Platform. Proposals from several marker bills championed by NSAC, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act and Assist Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Act, were also included in the final farm bill.

Changes to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP)

In addition to providing mandatory funding for and streamlining BFRDP and Section 2501 under FOTO, the final 2018 Farm Bill also makes several important programmatic changes to each.

As part of FOTO, several changes to BFRDP’s grant priorities and procedures have been modified (though the grant terms are unchanged). For one, BFRDP will now place a greater emphasis on projects that support farm succession planning (included as a new grant priority) and farmland transfer to new farmers. Specifically, projects may now be targeted towards retiring farmers and non-farming landowners so long as the ultimate aim of the project is to increase opportunities for beginning farmers.

Additional changes include:

  • Grantees may now be eligible to request a waiver to the matching funds requirement if their project targets an “underserved area or population.”
  • For grant projects under $50,000, USDA is required to establish a simplified grant application process.
  • Eligibility criteria remain roughly the same, though municipal agencies (as well as federal, state, and tribal governments) have been added as eligible applicants.
  • Farmers must now be involved in BFRDP project design and implementation (included as a new evaluation criteria for grant proposals).

In addition to these changes, FOTO also adds some new components to BFRDP. FOTO expands BFRDP Educational Team projects (known as “EET grants”) to support not just new farmer curriculum development, but also the development of other types of educational programs and workshops, or training and technical assistance initiatives. These may include, for example, train-the-trainer initiatives for service providers that work directly with beginning farmers.

FOTO also expands priorities for future BFRDP grants to include components on food safety and recordkeeping. With the impending compliance dates surrounding new food safety regulations (as mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act – FSMA), this new focus on beginning farmer training programs that address food safety training will provide a welcomed opportunity to support this critical (and often complicated) work of getting new farmers up to speed on food safety compliance.

The new farm bill also directs NIFA to solicit input from beginning, SD, and veteran farmers – as well as the USDA advisory committees that serve these populations – to ensure BFRDP is fully meeting the needs of farmers. All other components of the program – including cap on indirect costs, set-asides, priority for CBOs and NGOs – remain unchanged.

Changes to the Section 2501 Program

In establishing FOTO, the new farm bill also makes several changes to the underlying 2501 Program that increase the program’s transparency, accountability and responsiveness to stakeholders.

One of the most significant changes is the requirement for USDA to administer the program using an external (rather than internal) peer review process. BFRDP (and other programs administered by NIFA) use an external peer review process in order to evaluate and recommend proposals for funding. Farmers, non-profit organizations, extension agents, as well as former or prospective grantees, are eligible to serve on BFRDP’s peer review panel. The peer review panel is charged with reviewing and making funding determinations for each submitted proposal. Historically, Section 2501 has relied on USDA staff to review and evaluate funded applications, rather than external stakeholders. This “black box” approach has left farmers and organizations largely in the dark in terms of providing input into the most effective strategies and approaches to best assist farmers of color.

Additionally, the farm bill establishes a new priority for 2501 grants that are led by community-based and non-profit organizations with expertise working with socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers. The bill also requires regional balance in Section 2501 grant funding. Similar to changes made to BFRDP, USDA is now required to solicit input from organizations and institutions serving these communities to ensure that the program is responsive to their needs.

In an effort to better streamline the two FOTO programs, the farm bill also establishes grant terms for 2501 grants that are consistent with BFRDP grants. No project can receive more than $250,000 per year for a maximum of three years, and the cap on indirect costs is 10 percent.

Reporting requirements on 2501 program activities are also expanded under FOTO. In addition to requiring the program to report on the problems and barriers identified by grantees in trying to increase participation by socially disadvantaged farmers, it must now also report:

  • Number of farms started, maintained, or improved as a result of 2501 grant funding; and
  • Actions taken by USDA and 2501 grantees to enhance participation in agricultural programs by veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers or ranchers, and the effectiveness of such actions.

Hopefully, this information will help to produce more effective outreach and technical assistance programs and ultimately increase usage of USDA programs by farmers of color and other underserved producer communities.

Funding Structure

In creating FOTO, the new farm bill provides permanent “baseline” funding for both BFRDP and Section 2501 – a historic victory for beginning farmers and other underserved communities. This sends an important signal that long-term investments are needed to ensure the success of the next generation of farmers and to address systemic historical inequities in accessing resources.

In total, the new farm bill provides $435 million in mandatory funding for FOTO over the next ten years, split equally between BFRDP and 2501. Initial funding starts at $30 million in fiscal years (FY) 2019 and 2020 ($15 million for each program). While this represents a $5 million increase in funding for 2501 grants (compared to current levels), it also means a $5 million decrease in funding for BFRDP grants for the next two funding cycles – increasing competition for limited funding. The FY 2019 appropriations bill recently signed into law includes an additional $3 million for Section 2501– bringing total grant funding for FY 2019 to $18 million (nearly double the amount of funding available the year prior).

By FY 2021, each program will have $17.5 million in grant funding available, $20 million in FY 2022, and funding will plateau for both programs at $25 million per year in FY 2023 and each year thereafter. Thanks to the farm bill’s designation of baseline funding, BFRDP and Section 2501 will no longer be at risk of shutting down at the end of each farm bill cycle – a historic and hard-won accomplishment.

Additionally, 5 percent of annual funding for both BFRDP and 2501 will be set aside for administration, outreach, and evaluation – including administering the peer review panels and convening annual Project Director’s meetings.

In addition to mandatory farm bill funding, Congress authorized an additional $50 million per year in discretionary funding for FOTO. At NSAC’s annual convening last month, our members approved FOTO as a top funding priority for the coming year. We will therefore be working closely with our members and supporters across the country to continue increasing funding for FOTO in order to bring BFRDP funding back to its historic levels.

Rolling out FOTO: Implementation Outlook

At present, detailed timelines or plans for how USDA will implement FOTO are still unknown. Due to the recent government shutdown, many farm bill implementation efforts have been delayed. We do, however, anticipate that BFRDP and 2501 will largely be implemented and continue to operate much in the same way they did under the 2014 Farm Bill.

Although delayed, we expect FY 2019 Requests for Applications (RFAs) to be released later this spring. NIFA intends to hold a webinar as soon as the BFRDP RFA is released, which will walk stakeholders through major changes and answer any questions from prospective applicants. Similarly, we expect OPPE to release an RFA for the 2501 program, however, the timeline for that is still uncertain.

Questions remain regarding how new authorities or functions of the programs will be implemented – chief among them, the new external peer review process within the 2501 program. No formal rulemaking is expected for either program, and information has yet to be released from USDA regarding how they will solicit stakeholder input on implementing the changes made in the farm bill.

What to Watch for As Implementation Moves Forward 

There are as yet many unknowns regarding how USDA will move forward in implementing FOTO. Key questions that NSAC will be watching (and weighing in on with USDA) include:

How will NIFA define “underserved population or area” in order for BFRDP grantees to request a waiver?  

In our review of barriers to securing BFRDP grant funding, we have heard time and time again how difficult it can be for smaller and limited capacity non-profit and community-based organizations to meet the program’s 25 percent matching funds requirement. While we hoped the 2018 Farm Bill would create consistency with Section 2501 (which doesn’t require a match), Congress instead provided a waiver option to the existing BFRDP match. NSAC urges NIFA to consider a variety of factors in determining whether or not to grant a waiver request, including giving priority to non-profit and community-based organizations that have limited capacity and/or are working with underserved communities.

What will the simplified grant application look like for BFRDP? 

Similarly, many non-profit organizations struggle with the onerous and often complicated and time-consuming grant application process for BFRDP grants. NSAC has for years pushed NIFA to develop a more streamlined and simplified process for non-profit and community-based organizations, who often lack a dedicated grants specialist to assist with the application process. We will continue to work with NIFA in order to determine ways to streamline and simplify applications for non-profit and community-based organizations.

How will OPPE stand up external peer review for the 2501 program? 

One of the most significant changes in the farm bill is the new peer review process now required for 2501 grants. It remains to be seen, however, whether OPPE has the capacity to manage and administer an external peer review process internally. If not, they may opt to partner with an agency with more capacity, infrastructure and expertise in grant making, such as NIFA.

How will OPPE implement grant terms for 2501 projects?  

Currently, 2501 applicants are only able to receive grant funding for a single year, and must reapply (and recompete) for funding every year. This is obviously an inefficient use of the often limited capacity and resources of community-based and non-profit organizations whose primary mission is to assist farmers. NSAC encourages OPPE to allow organizations to apply for the maximum three year grant authorized under the 2018 Farm Bill in order to better support longer grant projects that yield more impactful and measurable outcomes.

Farmer and Stakeholder Input Needed in 2019

As USDA moves forward with implementing the 2018 Farm Bill, farmers and service providers alike will play a critical role in ensuring that FOTO meets their needs and expectations. As an early supporter of FOTO, NSAC plans to remain active throughout the implementation process, and will publicize all opportunities for stakeholders to submit comments and recommendations to USDA.

Once the administrative details of FOTO are hammered out and the program is ready to begin accepting applications for funding, NSAC will provide detailed program and application information via our blog and our Grassroots Guide to Federal Food and Farm Programs.

The post A Closer Look at the 2018 Farm Bill: Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

Contact: Reana Kovalcik 
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition 
202-547-5754, rkovalcik@sustainableagriculture.net  

Long-awaited Wins for Sustainable Agriculture Finally Delivered in FY 2019 Appropriations Bill 

“Minibus” increases funding for core sustainable agriculture programs, rejects Administration’s planned relocation of USDA research agencies 

Washington, DC, February 14, 2019  – After months of suffering through the longest government shutdown in history, America’s family farmers and ranchers are finally seeing movement on a new agriculture spending bill. Today, the House and Senate reached an agreement on a fiscal year (FY) 2019 spending package for the seven appropriations bills not yet signed into law. 

The bill makes historic investments in sustainable agriculture research, prioritizes funding for farmer food safety training, value-added agriculture, military veterans and farmers of color, and protects essential conservation programs. Given the 2018 Farm Bill’s passage at the end of last year, this funding is particularly critical in order to begin implementation of numerous new or modified programs and policies.

“We applaud Congress, and in particular the members of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees, for producing and passing an appropriations bill that continues to advance sustainable agriculture as a priority,” said Alyssa Charney, Senior Policy Specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). “After enduring months of uncertainty and lapsed program funding resulting from the partial government shutdown, America’s farmers and rural communities are finally going to see long-awaited funding increases for sustainable agriculture programs become reality. NSAC thanks Congress for furthering investments in sustainable agriculture programs and priorities, and we urge the President to sign this funding package into law as soon as possible.”

The final funding package sets strong funding levels for each of NSAC’s top appropriations priorities for FY 2019: 

  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program: $37 million appropriated. This represents a six percent increase from FY 2018 and the highest funding level in the program’s 30-year history. 
  • Farm Bill conservation programs: No cuts to farm bill conservation programs for the second year in a row, which is critically important in the first year of implementation under the 2018 Farm Bill. 
  • Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers program: $3 million in discretionary funding appropriated in addition to $15 million in farm bill funding provided under the newly established Farming Opportunity Training and Outreach program. 
  • Food Safety Outreach Program: $8 million appropriated. This represents a $1 million (14 percent) increase in funding for farmer food safety training.  
  • Value-Added Producer Grants: $15 million appropriated, plus an additional $2.5 million for technical assistance. This amount is level with FY 2018, and meets NSAC’s request. VAPG is also provided with $17.5 million in FY 2019 under the 2018 Farm Bill’s new Local Agriculture Market Program. 
  • Conservation Operations and Technical Assistance: $819 million appropriated. Combined with $70.8 million in funding that was moved to the business center within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farm Production and Conservation mission area, this represents a $15 million increase above last year’s funding levels.
  • Farm Service Agency Loans: Level funding from FY 2018. NSAC will continue to work to ensure the available funding reflects demand, especially following changes made to loan caps in the 2018 Farm Bill. 

“In addition to providing for these funding priorities, we would also like to thank appropriators for including language in their bill opposing USDA’s plan to relocate and reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA),” said Charney. “The inclusion of this strong opposition language reflects the real and justified concerns raised by NSAC and other stakeholders over the hasty manner in which this plan was formed and executed. We are pleased that the spending bill is clear in directing USDA to indefinitely delay the reorganization of ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist, and also that it demands that USDA provide a detailed analysis and cost estimates of the proposed relocation of both agencies.”  

### 

About the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) 
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition is a grassroots alliance that advocates for federal policy reform supporting the long-term social, economic, and environmental sustainability of agriculture, natural resources, and rural communities. Learn more and get involved at: http://sustainableagriculture.net 

The post RELEASE: Long-awaited Wins for Sustainable Agriculture Finally Delivered in FY 2019 Appropriations Bill appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, speaks during a news conference announcing Green New Deal legislation in Washington, D.C., on, Feb. 7, 2019. Photo credit: Al Drago/Bloomberg

Now in their second month on the job, the 116th Congress is increasingly focusing their attention on the very real effects of climate change – as well as the need to develop and advance policy solutions to address pressing climate-related threats. Farmers, ranchers, and rural communities have endured increasingly frequent and devastating natural disasters, and are frontline stakeholders in today’s climate change adaptation and mitigation conversations.

As was illustrated in last year’s 4th National Climate Assessment, agriculture and rural communities continue to feel the effects of climate change through reduced agricultural productivity, degraded soil and water resources, as well as health challenges for rural populations and livestock. All of these effects also have major implications for farmers’ and rural communities’ economic stability.

Additionally, we know that while agriculture does contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, the industry is also uniquely positioned to contribute to climate change mitigation. Farmers and ranchers throughout the country are already actively contributing by changing practices and managing agricultural systems in new ways that better reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members across the country are committed to seeking out policy solutions that provide farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to actively contribute toward climate change mitigation and adaptation. In this post, we provide an update on recent congressional developments on climate change through the lens of sustainable agriculture.

Green New Deal

The climate effort gaining the most attention over the past several weeks has been the Green New Deal, a framework introduced by Representative Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Markey (D-MA). The Green New Deal is designed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and also to create new, high-wage jobs. The resolution (H. Res 109/S. Res 59) proposes sweeping changes to nearly every sector, including manufacturing, energy, waste management, transportation, infrastructure, and agriculture. While comprehensive in scope, at this point the framework does not include many actual details. The intent, as stated by the Green New Deal’s authors, is to continue building out the framework with more specifics over time. Representative Ocasio Cortez and Senator Markey were joined in signing the resolution by nearly 70 Representatives and 10 Senators thus far.

NSAC is pleased to see broad language included in the resolution relating to agriculture, and look forward to continuing to provide information and recommendations as more specific proposals related to climate change and agriculture arise.

Congressional Hearings and Committees

In addition to the release of the Green New Deal and the reintroduction of a carbon pricing bill earlier this year, several congressional committees and subcommittees have recently held hearings to examine the effects of climate change and strategies for mitigation. Recent Committee and Subcommittee hearings have been held in the: House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands within Natural Resources Committee, House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congress has also made progress on naming members to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, which was newly established in the 116th Congress. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reestablished the Select Committee this year, and named nine Democrats to it, including: Representatives Kathy Castor (FL), Ben Ray Luján (NM), Suzanne Bonamici (OR), Julia Brownley (CA), Sean Casten (IL), Jared Huffman (CA), Mike Levin (CA), Donald McEachin (VA), and Joe Neguse (CO). Republicans will also have six seats on the Select Committee, but as of yet no Members have been named. The Select Committee with not have the authority to draft legislation, as was originally proposed by many members who also put forward the Green New Deal, but it will play a key role in providing guidance and recommendations regarding how Congress will act on climate change moving forward.

Farm Bill Implementation

In addition to the opportunities created by recent legislative proposals, the ongoing implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill also presents an opportunity to ensure that sustainability and climate-related goals are achieved.

While the farm bill’s provisions are by no means a be-all-end-all solution to addressing climate change, there are several that take important steps forward on mitigation and adaptation:

  • Increases payments for soil health beneficial practices, including cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and advanced grazing within the Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Includes a pilot program on soil carbon demonstration projects within the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Conservation Innovation Grant.
  • Includes of ranking criteria related to weather variability and soil health within key conservation programs.
  • Addresses barriers between cover crop adoption and crop insurance.
  • Closes loopholes within the Sodsaver program to provide additional protection for native sod.
  • Adds new emphasis on soil health within the Organic Research and Extension Initiative and increases funding.

NSAC is committed to continuing to work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on implementation of these important provisions, as well as with our champions in Congress. These provisions provide important tools and incentives to support farmers and ranchers in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and can be an important piece of overall efforts to ensure agriculture plays a key role in overall efforts.

Next Steps

In our recent January convening, NSAC’s member organizations identified climate change and agriculture as a critical emerging priority for the Coalition in the year ahead. We look forward to working with our 120+ member organizations across the country on a comprehensive scoping and policy development process that will better guide our climate change-related work moving forward. We will also continue to track and weigh in on legislative proposals as they move forward throughout the year. With the 2018 Farm Bill implementation finally underway, NSAC will also provide detailed feedback and analysis on climate-change mitigation and adaptation priorities – including but not limited to the development and preservation of healthy soils.

The post Climate Action Heats up in Congress – What Does it Mean for Agriculture? appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Photo credit: USDA.

Amidst ongoing budget negotiations to prevent another government shutdown, Members of Congress followed through with their commitment to continue to stand up against the proposed move of two premier research institutions from the Capital region.  This week, Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), and 12 other members of Congress reintroduced the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2019 (ARIA), H.R.1221, with the aim of laying the legislative groundwork to oppose the relocation.

The proposal to relocate and reorganize the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) was proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last summer, but critics say this decision is being carried out without any policy or cost analysis or economic justification. Along with citing concerns for USDA’s decision, the bill reaffirms the primary locations of ERS and NIFA within Washington–Baltimore–Arlington combined statistical area. The bill also stipulates that the authority to administer the agencies lies with the Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics (REE) and that it may not be vested in another mission area or office within USDA.

In addition to the bill’s lead sponsors, ARIA is cosponsored by fellow agriculture appropriators Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Betty McCollum (D-MN), Barabara Lee (D-CA) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX); House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD); as well as Representatives Elanor Holmes-Norton (D-DC), Marcia Fudge (D-OH), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Ann Kuster (D-NH), Jim McGovern (D-MA), and Salud Carbajal (D-CA).

Mounting Opposition from the Hill

A growing number of Congressional lawmakers have raised similar concerns. Just this week, after months of ongoing negotiations to end the partial government shutdown, both House and Senate appropriators agreed on language restricting the move as included in the final conference report released for the fiscal year (FY) 2019 agriculture appropriations bill. The report specifically expressed concern around USDA’s plan to relocate and reorganize ERS and NIFA and directed USDA to “delay indefinitely” the proposal to reorganize ERS under the Office of the Chief Economist as well as provide a “detailed analysis” and cost estimates of the proposed move of both agencies. The final FY19 agriculture appropriations bill is slated to be approved by the House and Senate, and hopefully signed into law, this week.

NSAC applauds House and Senate leaders for acknowledging the real and justified concerns raised by NSAC and other stakeholders in the agricultural community, and for addressing the issue as one of their first actions of the year. We encourage the House and Senate to move forward quickly in adopting this language and approve a final funding bill for FY2019.

Mounting Opposition from the Scientific Community

To date, 136 expressions of interest from 35 states have been submitted by various institutions interested in becoming the new home of the agencies. USDA has contracted with a private firm, Ernst and Young, to assist in reviewing the applications. Since the initial announcement of the proposed move, USDA has since released specific selection criteria they will consider in choosing a new location. These criteria include quality of life, housing costs, access to healthcare, and safety, among others.

Despite the perhaps obligatory interest from states to compete to host the two agencies, there has been widespread concern about the move, not only from the hill, but also from the agency’s primary stakeholders. Leaders within the scientific community have made it known that moving and reorganizing ERS and NIFA will have detrimental impacts on the broader research community, as well as funding and support for agricultural research at large. Of prime concern is the loss of expert staff that will likely be unable to uproot their lives to make the move. Such a loss would drastically impact the quality of expertise at the agencies and key relationships with stakeholders in the DC area. Additional concerns include the further isolation of agriculture research and the impact on partnerships with other federal agencies located in DC and annual appropriations, as well as increased political influence into federally-chartered economic policy research analysis.

To date, over fifty scientists and administrators of Land-Grant Universities, including former Research Undersecretaries of the USDA, have outlined the likely negative outcomes of moving and / or reorganizing the two nonpartisan research agencies. In a letter addressed to Congress, they propose that moving the agencies out of the DC Capital region will undermine food and agriculture enterprise by disrupting and hampering the agencies’ vital economic and scientific work, as well as erode efforts to increase research funding which has stagnated for the last couple decades. Letters from over 100 farm and scientific organizations have also been submitted to USDA and members of Congress expressing similar concerns.

Catherine Woteki, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for Research, Education & Economics (REE) and Gale Buchanan, former USDA Chief Scientist and Under Secretary of Agriculture for REE have been two outspoken critics of the move. They have broadly shared their primary concerns that USDA’s attempts to dismantle its research arm in such a major way, and in such a short time, without consultation with current or former REE, NIFA, and ERS leaders (or input from the greater research community and other good-government procedures) –  will result in chaos and upheaval within the Department.

Outlook on the Relocation?

Despite the widespread concern from both stakeholders and the hill, the Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has so far remained intent on dismantling the agencies and proceeding with the relocation. With little to no information from the Department and no cost-benefit analysis justifying the move, critics are still baffled as to why USDA is undertaking this move. To date, USDA has denied all requests for a formal public comment period and has provided stakeholders very little information about the relocation plan. An Inspector General report has been initiated to review the proposal and is expected within the coming weeks.

Current government funding expires February 15, and although not guaranteed, it is increasingly likely that that lawmakers will be able to put a new bill on the President’s desk this week. If the new 2019 spending bill—which hinges around border security—that was released this week is passed and signed into law, USDA will face a stronger impediment to moving forward with the move. Although not a mandate, requests for a deeper cost analysis of the move can be an important step in providing information and more transparency to the process, and potentially create an opportunity for stronger action in the FY2020 appropriations process.

The post Congress Reintroduces Bill to Keep Research Agencies in Nation’s Capital appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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NSAC Members at our 2019 Winter Meeting

Last week, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)’s annual winter meeting convened over 80 coalition members from all across the country to discuss food and agriculture policy in the nation’s capital. At the four-day convening, participants selected and made plans around NSAC coalition priorities, including implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill, which was signed into law late last year. The winter meeting closed with a lobby day, where staff from NSAC’s member organizations attended over 80 meetings with members of Congress to champion policies that impact farmers and communities nationwide.

NSAC’s 2019 Priorities

Determining annual priorities is a key part of NSAC’s ability to work effectively and efficiently in advocating for policies that address the needs of farmers and communities across the country. The process of determining priorities includes feedback from member organizations over the course of several months, and at NSAC’s annual Winter Meeting, the Policy Council, made up of NSAC’s represented members, has the final vote on the priorities the coalition will work on in the year ahead.

NSAC sets annual priorities for policy and appropriations issues that are relevant for sustainable agriculture. With the 2018 Farm Bill now signed into law, this year members focused priorities on the farm bill implementation process, which includes working with Congress and USDA to ensure that wins from the 2018 Farm Bill are carried out to achieve intended results and benefits for farmers, ranchers, natural resources, and communities across the country.

Members Participate in our discussion on emerging issues

2019 Policy Priorities

Our 2019 campaign priorities are focused in on ensuring the farm bill wins that NSAC and our members championed are successfully implemented and that policy improvements reach and benefits farmers on the ground. The campaign priorities selected by NSAC membership represent areas where there is a need and an opportunity for grassroots voices to engage and help protect and advance policy wins over the course of the next year. The three grassroots priorities selected by NSAC membership are listed below:

In addition to NSAC’s three grassroots campaign policy priorities outlined above, NSAC members also adopted the following priorities for our policy work in 2019:

  • Land protection programs
  • Measurement and reporting of conservation outcomes
  • Farm safety net program changes
  • Credit and Farm Service Agency loans
  • Food Safety Implementation and Training
  • Food Safety Financial Assistance Program
  • Seeds and breeds
  • Organic Research

Appropriations Priorities

NSAC members were also tasked with selecting appropriations priorities for the year ahead, which will be focused on securing discretionary funding for key sustainable agriculture priorities in fiscal year (FY) 2020. The following five priorities were selected as grassroots priorities for the year ahead.

  • Protect Mandatory Conservation Funding – The farm bill, not the appropriations bill, funds the major USDA conservation financial assistance programs, yet both the Administration and congressional appropriators often attempt to use farm bill conservation funding as a piggy bank to pay for unrelated discretionary spending. NSAC’s goal in 2019 is to protect critical farm bill conservation programs that have been authorized for mandatory funding in the 2018 Farm Bill.
  • Farming Opportunities Training and Outreach Program (FOTO) – With the inclusion of and provision of mandatory permanent funding for the Farming Opportunity Training and Outreach (FOTO) program in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress has knocked down some of the most challenging obstacles and blazed a path forward for the next generation of farmers.
  • Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education – SARE is the only USDA competitive research program with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research. We will seek to build on SARE’s last three decades of successful research and give it a long-overdue funding boost to prepare farmers for the challenges of the next 30 years.
  • Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP) – NSAC seeks to ensure FSOP provides ample funding for direct farmer training projects, and to ensure that funds are directed toward on-the-ground training projects that benefit small and mid-sized family farms, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, organic and sustainable farms, and local food enterprises.

  • Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP)– LAMP is a new umbrella program created in the 2018 Farm Bill that partially combines the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) and Value-Added Producers Grant Program (VAPG). By moving FMLFPP and VAPG under the umbrella of LAMP, Congress was able to ensure permanent, mandatory funding for both original programs. During the implementation phase, it will be important to prioritize assuring that the funding allocated for LAMP allows the programs to operate at their full capacity.

In addition to NSAC’s grassroots campaign priorities, our members also adopted the following additional appropriations priorities for FY 2020: conservation technical assistance; FSA loans; Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network; Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program; and opposing the proposed ERS/NIFA reorganization.

NSAC staff and members at one of our breakout sessions

Emerging issues

NSAC also adopted several “emerging issues” this year, through which we will engage our members in policy development, research, capacity building and laying the groundwork for future legislative campaigns. These are issues for which there is significant interest from our member organizations and an opportunity for future legislative wins. NSAC’s emerging issues for 2019 are:

Happy Hour

Coalition members at this year’s Winter Meeting had the opportunity to experience DC’s burgeoning craft spirits scene during happy hour at One Eight Distilling. Located in the northeast DC neighborhood of Ivy City, One Eight Distilling gets its name from Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution which established Washington, DC as the nation’s capital.

Participants sipped on craft cocktails and participated in guided distillery tours where they learned about the procurement of local and regional ingredients for the production of One Eight’s spirits and the relationships the distillery has developed with the producers.

NSAC Members on a guided tour of the distillery process at One Eight Distilling

Local Panel

Tuesday evening marked the close of three days of strategizing and priority planning for coalition members. The day concluded with racial affinity caucusing followed by a panel of community leaders who are engaging in racial equity and food justice work in the broader DC, Maryland, and Virginia region.

The panel – Sustainable Agriculture, Unsustainable Inequities – was moderated by Ruth Tyson from the Union of Concerned Scientists. As the coordinator of the Good Food for All (GFFA) coalition, she works to unite grassroots and national organizations around a vision for a just, equitable and sustainable food system, and transforming the food system through policy advocacy. Speaking on the panel were DMV residents Gail Taylor, Michael J. Wilson, and Reverend Dr. Heber Brown.

Longtime DC resident Gail Taylor is the owner and operator of Three Part Harmony Farm in northeast DC. Gail asserts that Three Part Harmony Farm “grows food to feed people but also exists in part to challenge our assumptions on how urban farms should look. It intentionally seeks to create a viable and just local food economy while at the same time dismantling racism and the ever present, entrenched forms of oppression in that same food system.” A lead organizer for a campaign that eventually led to the passage of the DC Food Security Act of 2014, Taylor offers a perspective of the food system that speaks with experience in both policy and community advocacy.

As a panelist, Taylor discussed the idea of policy being a tool for building better communities and a better world for future generations, rather than the only solution to issues of inequity. She discussed the necessity for both community building and assessing the needs of your community in order to appropriately strategize around policy that has traditionally excluded people of color.

Taylor acknowledged the power she holds as a farmer and coordinator of a DC-based CSA that aims to procure all CSA inputs from farmers of color, women, and queer farmers within DC. Using her own buying power to financially support other food equity efforts supports the ever present theme of food sovereignty.

In response to a question about what self care looks like as a person of color in a white workplace, Taylor emphasized the importance she places in being able to find sanctuaries outside of predominantly white institutions, and the value for people of color to cultivate spaces where they are able to show up with all parts of themselves.

Since 2013, Michael J. Wilson has been leading hunger advocacy, education, and outreach as the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. Wilson serves as the Co-Chair for the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council as well as in several other leadership roles in statewide coalitions, and is a core advisor in the State Partnership to End Child Hunger. Wilson has experience working in Congress, as well as leading food policy and worker advocacy efforts at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, both of which have allowed him to experience the policymaking process firsthand.

Wilson spoke to the importance of movements within his own theory of change, highlighting the necessary distinction to be made between movements and institutions, stating that movements can turn into institutions, and institutions don’t create change. He also discussed the difficulties of policymaking effectively – highlighting statistics that show the amount of people receiving SNAP benefits is significantly lower than the amount of people who are eligible for SNAP benefits.

Reverend Dr. Heber M. Brown, III is a community organizer, social entrepreneur, and Senior Pastor at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Brown is the founder of the Black Church Food Security Network, which combats food insecurity by helping African American congregations establish gardens on church-owned land and by connecting Black Farmers and churches through a food value chain partnership. Dr. Brown discussed the importance of engaging Black churches in the fight for food sovereignty as collectively they represent the largest network of Black-owned land in the country.

Dr. Brown spoke to the importance of white people participating in personal and organizational racial equity work. The ability to create learning and reflective spaces for themselves, rather than placing the burden on people of color, is an integral part of white folks becoming effective accomplices to non-white communities. He also stressed the importance of white folks asking themselves the hard questions, holding one another accountable and being held accountable by the very communities that they attempt to serve.

Dr. Brown also raised questions around racial equity in food policy work and the partnerships they build with communities. He asked attendees to think about what the benefits and implications are in building partnerships with communities of color and consider whether the relationships are valuable for all parties, or exploitative and extractive of communities.

Lobby Day

NSAC members closed out the 2019 winter meeting with a day chock-full of Congressional meetings. Moving into the next phase of advocacy means continuing to build and maintain relationships with members of Congress who worked to champion the policies that NSAC members worked tirelessly to see move forward. Coalition members from across the country scheduled visits with over 80 members of Congress from their home states and districts to recent changes made in the 2018 Farm Bill, share implementation strategies and funding priorities for FY20, and deliver in person thank-yous for tireless efforts to support sustainable agriculture in the farm bill.

Jacqlyn Schneider, Deputy Chief of Staff on Senate Agriculture Committee, Katie Naessens and Katie Bergh, Senate Agriculture Committee Staff,  and NSAC Coalition members: presenting Senator Stabenow’s Champion of Sustainability Award

In recognizing lawmakers who worked particularly hard on pushing forth policies that benefit sustainable food and farming systems, NSAC awarded Champion of Sustainability awards to several members of Congress, including:

  • Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan for her tireless work fighting for local and regional food systems, beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and holding the line on conservation programs
  • Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio who championed local and regional food and the Local FARMS Act, as well as working lands conservation throughout the farm bill debates.
  • Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio who fought for critical provisions that protect and enhance natural resources, empower socially disadvantaged farmers to access USDA programs, and increase support for organic research.
Senator Susan Collins, a champion for beginning farmers & ranchers, organics, and local food with NSAC Coalition members Representative Peterson (D-MN) – champion for bipartisan farm bill, is presented with a 2018 Farm Bill award by NSAC staff member Alyssa Charney, and NSAC Coalition member Tara Ritter with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy NSAC member Matt West from Dakota Rural Action with Representative Dusty Johnson (R-SD)

Thank You  

Bags with gifts and snacks for our members provided by our sponsors

The NSAC 2019 winter meeting would not have been possible without the help of our sponsors, community partners, and allies.

We would like to deliver a special thank you to our meeting sponsors: Annie’s Homegrown, Clif Bar, Organic Valley, One Eight Distilling, Patagonia, and Republic Restoratives Distillery.

Our sponsors provided raffle prizes, donated space, financial contributions to assist with scholarships for attendance, and ample snacks to keep us nourished all week long!

Gail Taylor, Michael J. Wilson, and Reverend Dr. Heber Brown – the members of our panel who generously shared their time and knowledge with us. Thank you to our member organizations Future Harvest CASA and the Northeastern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group for helping to make these connections.

We would also like to thank Gallaudet University for hosting our winter meeting, and our host committee members at the National Young Farmers Coalition, Fair Food Network, and the Henry A. Wallace Center at Winrock International for helping us to coordinate and organize meeting logistics.

The work done within the organization would not be possible without the help of our members. Thank you all for your dedication and diligence in working on issues that advance sustainable agriculture. It is always wonderful to connect in person with so many of our hard-working members, energizing us for the challenging and exciting work ahead.

The post NSAC Members Convene to Set 2019 Priorities appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Editor’s Note: This article was written by NSAC Policy Specialist Nichelle  Harriott for the DC EcoWomen blog (Nichelle  is also a member of DC EcoWomen). The original post was published on January 19, 2019 and can be found here.

I remember a time, growing up in a small rural community in the Caribbean, where my grandfather would disappear into the backyard on Sunday for about an hour and return with a chicken– dead and defeathered– for my grandmother to prepare for lunch. Back then your eggs, peas, and even orange juice came from the backyard. And, if for some reason you didn’t have enough, you called your neighbor over the fence.

These were my first impressions of food and how we eat. Food was not about driving to the grocery store, examining labels, or wondering whether you should pay the extra $2 for the organic version. I may be showing my age here, but while my childhood experience may be from another generation, our food system has changed. Drastically.

Food deserts abound in poorer communities, especially communities of color who, now removed from living in close cooperation with the land — like my grandparents did, fight the challenges of distance and decreasing paychecks to put fresh, healthy foods on their tables. These communities face very real food insecurity challenges that tend to go ignored.

Our diets have also changed. Indigenous varieties of corn, once in shades of black, red or blue have been replaced by yellow– the color corporate agriculture has decided we should prefer. Not only that, but this corn is genetically engineered to resist the pesticides we spray on fields, killing beneficial insects, and poisoning our waterways. Instead of chickens running in open backyards, like those at my grandparent’s house, thousands are crammed into tiny holding cages, often unable to walk and fed antibiotic and hormone-laced grain until they become so large and deformed that they cannot stand.

Let’s face it. The way we grow food and feed our families has changed. And while we are told large monoculture fields, factory farms, intensive chemical application, and corporate takeover of our seed banks is the way we will feed a growing global population, we are beginning to see the ravages industrial agriculture places on our environment and farmworker health.

However, there are sustainable ways we can grow our food system, put healthy foods on our tables, eliminate food deserts, and take pride in the stewardship of the land. Taking the lead are often small beginning farmers, many of whom are farmers of color returning to the ways our grandparents farmed with a few tweaks of their own. These farmers, along with farmer-led organizations that support them, are building collaborative networks in their communities integrating sustainable food production that enhances the environment and social health of people, while improving safe handling, distribution, and consumption of the food they produce.

African-American, Latinx, Native-American, Hmong farmers and others are finding ways to reintroduce indigenous varieties of fresh and healthy food back into their communities. These farmers are building their skills, training other farmers, focusing on building healthy soil, conserving water, and providing habitat for wildlife. They are in rural and urban communities, in food hubs, farmer’s markets, community gardens. They are involved with groups like the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS), bringing together farmers of color, educators, chefs and food justice advocates around conversations like, “Where does our food come from and who provides it?” and “Why don’t we see more Black farmers at the farmer’s markets?

Unfortunately, at the national level, these farmers are often overlooked for federal funding to expand and retain their operations. For many years, federal policies did not grant the levels of support to farmers of color as they did to their white counterparts. This inequity has historically led farmers of color — often cash-strapped and unable to access credit or pay back loans — to lose their farms, pushing them out of business.

But things are changing and many organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture CoalitionRural Coalition, and others, are working on policy to increase farmers of color’s access to agriculture research and funding to sustain their farms. In December 2018, Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, the piece of legislation that oversees much of U.S. agriculture. There are some significant improvements to programs that support agriculture research for organic and sustainable systems, which will help beginning, underserved/farmers of color, and veteran farmers. These improvements include more funding for training and support. With new funds, these farmers will be able to get the support they need and help feed their communities.

The diversity of what we eat should be reflected by diversity in our food system and the farmers and workers who put food on our tables. A movement of farmers of color are primed to do just that while challenging our relationship with food. Will you join us?

Learn more about these farmers and organizations. Support sustainable food systems that also fight for food justice for all. Recommended Resources: Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners (BUGS) https://www.blackurbangrowers.org/; National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition http://sustainableagriculture.net/; Rural Coalition https://www.ruralco.org/

The post Breaking Barriers: Food System Diversity Begins with Farmer Diversity appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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Customer using Saturday Morning Market tokens to pay for some of her purchase, the tokens are funded by USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Photo credit: USDA, Lance Cheung.

Editor’s Note: This is the third post in a multi-part blog series digging deeper into some of the programs and policies of the 2018 Farm Bill. These posts will detail how the new farm bill is likely to impact core sustainable agriculture programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Previous posts focused on: working lands conservation and local/regional food programs. Our final post of the series will focus on beginning/socially disadvantaged farmers. This blog is a guest post written by Kate Fitzgerald for Fair Food Network, an NSAC member organization.

In the eyes of healthy food system advocates, one of the 2018 Farm Bill’s biggest successes is the expansion of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program (FINI); the SNAP incentive grant program established in the 2014 Farm Bill that has continued to garner bipartisan and bicameral support. The program was recently renamed in honor of longtime friend to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), former USDA Under Secretary, and Wholesome Wave co-founder Gus Schumacher, who was lauded in the conference committee report as “a magnificent advocate for farmers and families (who) saw the importance in building access and affordability through incentive programs.” The many NSAC member groups conducting incentive programs can attest to the truth of the statement.

The new and improved Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (which we will refer to as “FINI” here for simplicity’s sake) is funded at $250 million a year for 5 years, making it a permanent part of future farm bills . FINI is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

While the new FINI program continues the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) incentive grants program, it integrates some new program improvements that are a direct result of feedback from NSAC members and other FINI grantees. This includes new funding for technical assistance, information sharing, and a simplified reporting system, as well as the addition of a produce prescription provision originally proposed as a stand-alone program in the Local FARMS Act.

Program Details SNAP Incentives:

Competitive grants for SNAP point-of-sale fruit and vegetable incentives have total funding of up to $187 million in fiscal year 2019 through fiscal year 2023. These grants can go to public or nonprofit organizations and require a 50 percent non-federal cash or in-kind match.

Produce Prescriptions:  

Competitive grants for programs that provide “prescriptions” to encourage produce consumption through financial, educational, or other incentives will receive a maximum of $25 million over 5 years. These do not require a 50% non-federal match, but do need coordination with healthcare providers, and data collection to assess whether the approach can reduce healthcare spending.

Technical Assistance & Reporting:  

There is a total of $38 million over 5 years to establish training, technical assistance, information, and evaluation center(s). The goal of these is to:

  •  Develop and disseminate of best practices.
  • Provide intensive support for programs in high-need areas.
  • Coordinate among incentive practitioners, point of sale and electronic payment companies, grocers and farm direct retailers, and federal and state SNAP agencies on the development and sharing of improved and cost-effective SNAP and incentive transaction systems. 
  • Develop a centralized hub for the reporting of standardized program data to reduce duplication and ensure consistent information collection. The information will be used for annual reporting to Congress and USDA and will be publicly searchable in a way that will facilitate connections between programs and further research in the field. The USDA Secretary is encouraged to consult with a range of stakeholders and former grantees on the design and implementation of the training, TA, information and evaluation center(s).

FINI continues to emphasize a link to local and regional agriculture and direct marketing. It also supports programs in tribal communities by allowing Indian Health Service funds to be used as match and expands the program to include Puerto Rico, which receives a block grant instead of SNAP. Finally, it reduces grantee administration substantially by streamlining reporting and facilitating coordination to solve common challenges and share technological solutions.

What’s Next?

The implementation timeline for the new FINI program remains a mystery. The government shutdown has stalled any progress on deciding how the produce prescription grants will be administered, gathering feedback for the new support centers, or developing a bidding process to award those funds. In addition, the lion’s share of the FINI program implementation is done by NIFA staff so the uncertainty created by the USDA Secretary’s desire to move the agency out of Washington DC may slow the process even more.

Regardless the expanded FINI program remains a serious win in the 2018 Farm Bill for families and farmers, and speaks to the power of practitioners sharing the real successes such programs are having in communities nationwide.

The post A Closer Look at the 2018 Farm Bill: Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program appeared first on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

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