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June 3rd, 2019

DC Update: As Spring Showers Slow Planting, Movement Continues in DC on Appropriations and USDA Agency Relocation

The month of May saw some movement in DC on appropriations and the continued debate over USDA agency relocation, and an unusual number of spring showers that have delayed plantings of major row crops in the Corn Belt in particular.  

House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Passes Agriculture Bill  

On May 23, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies passed its appropriations bill for FY20 by voice vote. The bill contained no changes in mandatory program spending, or CHIMPS, that would decrease Farm Bill conservation program funding, and increased funding for Conservation Operations (which funds NRCS technical assistance) by $10 million compared to FY19 levels. It also contained language aimed at preventing a move of the Economic Research Service and National Institute for Food and Agriculture outside of Washington, D.C.  

Although these numbers are heartening for the agricultural conservation community, there is still much work to be done before a FY20 bill is passed. The appropriations levels have been set based on an allocation handed down by the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, rather than a Congressionally ratified budget—a deal for which could remain elusive. 

The Debate over ERS and NIFA Moves Continue

On May 3, USDA announced the short list of potential new sites for the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The top three under consideration are Indiana, the Greater Kansas City Region of Kansas and Missouri, and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. St. Louis, Missouri, and Madison, Wisconsin, both remain under consideration if the other contenders should be removed from the running. A full cost-benefit analysis has not yet been produced.  

Shortly after this announcement, on May 9, ERS employees voted to unionize by a margin of 138 to 4. A vote at NIFA is scheduled for June 11. Congressional action against the move has continued as well. As noted above, the House appropriations bill covering USDA contained language prohibiting the use of any funds for such a move of the agencies. A companion bill sponsored by Senator Van Hollen (cosponsored by Senators Cardin, Kaine, Warner, Leahy, Merkley, Murray, and Brown) to the bill introduced in February by Representative Pingree (cosponsored by Representatives Bishop, DeLauro, Fudge, Hoyer, Kuster, McGovern, Norton, Panetta, and Pocan), called the Agriculture Research Integrity Act of 2019, also seeks to prevent the move. Senator Van Hollen has also placed a hold on the nomination of Scott Hutchins to be USDA’s chief economist, a position that oversees ERS and NIFA. 

Farm Bill Implementation Continues at USDA

USDA continues to take steps towards implementing the 2018 Farm Bill. On May 6, a rule was released that makes several smaller technical changes to the regulations of USDA programs based on changes in the Farm Bill. These included: expanding the membership of State Technical Committees to allow State Cooperative Extension Service and land grant university representatives to participate; allowing technical service providers to be certified through a non-federal entity; and reserving $3 million of Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program funds for lands enrolled in ACEP-Wetlands Reserve Easements.  

The USDA has also been rolling out a series of announcements for program funding, including the Soil Health Demonstration Trial under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Conservation Innovation Grants. For additional agency updates, visit https://www.farmers.gov/farmbill 

Wet Spring Weather Delays Planting

Outside of D.C., wet weather and severe storms have seriously slowed spring planting in the Midwest. According to the latest crop progress report released on May 28, the 18 states with top historical corn production had only planted 58% of acres, as opposed to 90% at this time last year. Similarly, the top 18 states for soy production had planted only 29% of their acres, compared to 74% by this time last year. These farmers may be receiving prevented planting insurance payments at record numbers this year.  

Looking Ahead 

As lawmakers look ahead to August recess, work on a budget deal and a disaster aid package will continue to loom large. Additional information about Farm Bill programs and the proposed relocation of USDA agencies is expected to continue being rolled out as well.