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July 1st, 2019

Agricultural Policy Developments in Congress, at USDA, and on the Democratic Presidential Debate Stage

June saw several developments for agricultural policy in various arenas: in Congress, an incremental step in the appropriations process and a hearing on the economics of soil health; at USDA, additional information about the proposed ERS/NIFA move, and on the Democratic Presidential campaign trail, several specific mentions of climate change and agriculture.

Appropriations Inch Forward

Although a budget deal has not yet been reached, which would more concretely set top-line appropriations numbers, the House Appropriations Committee has moved several funding bills forward. On June 4, the full committee marked up the Agriculture, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development bills. On June 25, the Agriculture bill was considered on the House floor as part of a minibus package with Commerce, Justice, Interior, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Energy. Amendments were offered and adopted to increase funding for Farm-to-School Grants (by Representatives Pressley, Lamb, and Tlaib) and technical assistance (by Representative Lamb); the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, or FRSAN, program to fund mental health resources for farmers and ranchers (by Representative Slotkin); and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grants (by Representative Maloney) among other changes. The bill passed 227-194.

Soil Health Hearing

On Tuesday, June 25, the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry held its second hearing on the topic of “Managing for Soil Health: Securing the Conservation and Economic Benefits of Healthy Soils.” Witnesses included farmers and practitioners who spoke about the need to provide resources and incentives for farmers and ranchers looking to improve their soil health practices, and the benefits that those practices can have for both environmental and economic outcomes on farms. Questions from members of Congress included seeking information about how quantifying outcomes can be done to allow for carbon markets and what the barriers are for farmers who are interested in adopting new practices.

ERS, NIFA Relocation Announced

On June 11, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture followed the Economic Research Service’s footsteps in a vote to unionize, which was adopted 137-2.

On June 13, Secretary Perdue announced that Kansas City had been selected as the new site for the USDA Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. A second part of the proposed relocation and reorganization, to move ERS from the Research, Education, and Economics mission area to the Office of the Chief Economist, will not move forward.

Following an estimate released by American Federation of Government Employees (representing the newly unionized workers) that as many as four out of five ERS employees could quit instead of relocating, House Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and, Department Operations Chair Fudge, and Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research Chair Plaskett sent a joint letter to Secretary Perdue. The letter requested a plan for preventing a lapse in stakeholder services during the move and contained several requests for additional information, including on diversity within the agency’s workforce, “What consideration was given to the availability of qualified minority applicants in the Kansas City Region when compared to the National Capital Region?” The move continues to be met with skepticism by Democrats in the House and Senate. USDA staff have until July 15 to decide if they will relocate.

Climate and Agriculture on the Presidential Debate Stage

Although agricultural issues did not take center stage during the two-night Democratic primary debates, there were a few mentions of agricultural sustainability. During the first night’s debate, former Representative Beto O’Rourke described his plan to tackle climate change by saying in part: “We’re going to free ourselves from a dependence on fossil fuels, and we’re going to put farmers and ranchers in the driver’s seat, renewable and sustainable agriculture, to make sure that we capture more carbon out of the air and keep more of it in the soil, paying farmers for the environmental services that they want to provide.”

On night two, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked how his administration would help farmers impacted by climate change in the Midwest. After discussing a carbon tax and dividend plan, he added: “Now, here’s what very few people talk about. First of all, rural America can be part of the solution instead of being told they’re part of the problem. With the right kind of soil management and other kind of investments, rural America could be a huge part of how we get this done.”

Looking Ahead

After the July 4 holiday, Congress will have three full weeks to work together before the August recess, although a continuing resolution for government funding may be the way forward rather than a near-term budget deal. Given the deadline for ERS and NIFA staff decisions in mid-July, the next month should also give a clearer picture of how much attrition can be expected.