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May 3rd, 2019

D.C. Update: New Ag Census Data, Updates on Farm Bill Implementation, and House Hearings on Conservation

After two years of hard work to analyze massive amounts of data, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service released the 2017 Census of Agriculture this month. The USDA also shared a progress update on Farm Bill implementation throughout the agency. On the Hill, the month of April was somewhat quiet in Washington, with lawmakers gone for two weeks between the April 15 and the April 26. However, the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee did hold two hearings where conservation was a topic of discussion.

Census of Agriculture Released

After a slight delay because of the government shutdown, the 2017 Census of Agriculture data was released on April 11. Of particular note in this Census is that the methodology for counting operators was amended in order to better capture information about all people involved in the running of the farm. Rather than recording just one principal operator, this Census gathers data on multiple operators and the types of tasks they carry out on the farm or ranch.

Some of the trends from previous years have continued: the average age of all producers continued to climb to 57.5 years old, an increase of 1.2 years since the previous Census in 2012, and the number of farms and ranches decreased by 3.2 percent to 2.04 million. On the brighter side (although these numbers are somewhat difficult to compare given the new methodology), new and beginning farmers with less than 10 years of experience on their current farm increased 9 percent to 510,536 compared to a similar figure in 2012.

For more information and analysis about the 2017 Census of Agriculture, visit American Farmland Trust’s blog post.

Farm Bill Implementation Update

Also in mid-April, USDA released an update on Farm Bill implementation that provided the latest news within each of the 2018 Farm Bill titles. In addition to the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program implementation updates for FY19 discussed in last month’s DC Update, progress in the Conservation Title includes announcing a deadline for FY19 Conservation Stewardship Program signups with higher payments for cover crops, resource conserving crop rotations, and advanced grazing, and the announcement of funds availability for several state Conservation Innovation Grants.

Additionally, the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Programs have a June 18 grant application deadline, with $23 million in total funds available. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program has two grant application deadlines announced—May 16 for FY19 funding and February 13 for FY20 funding—for $15 million in total available funds each year.

House Appropriations Agriculture Hearings

Before departing for recess, the subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee held two hearings. The first was a regular hearing regarding the Department of Agriculture’s FY20 budget request. As part of the discussion, Representative Chellie Pingree asked Secretary Sonny Perdue about USDA’s climate change mitigation efforts, including the potential for environmental markets, to which he responded enthusiastically about existing practices and future opportunities. The second hearing, entitled Economic Opportunities for Farmers through Sustainable Agricultural Practices, featured Kevin Norton, the acting associate chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service; Nate Powell-Palm, a certified organic farmer from Montana; and Jason Weller, the senior director of sustainability for Land O’ Lakes SUSTAIN (and former NRCS chief). Although the hearing was brief, there was good discussion around agriculture as a solution to many environmental issues, including climate change.

Looking Ahead

In the month ahead, the Farm Bill implementation and appropriations processes will continue to move forward through the USDA and Congress, respectively. American Farmland Trust expects that the appropriations hearing that usually follows budget hearings will take place sometime in May or early June. Climate discussions are also expected to continue in the coming months, as the House prepares to vote on HR 9, the Climate Action Now Act.