Deep Losses Suffered by Sustainable Ag: The 2015 “Cromnibus”


CongressThe 2015 Final Annual Appropriations Bill passed by Congress late last week held more losses than wins for sustainable agriculture. The losses suffered by the sustainable agriculture community were deep and, in some cases, reversed progress gained over more than two decades of advocacy. Those gains had been made by outspoken farmers like Craig Watts, who took great personal risk to shed light on broken aspects of our agricultural system.

The bill, also known as the “Cromnibus,” gets its name by combining CR, which stands for “Continuing Resolution” and is what Congress passes to temporarily continue the previous year’s spending levels, and omnibus, the term given to the process typically used for appropriations bills. The bill stands as yet another example of a dysfunctional Congress, which has made these unusual legislative measures the norm.

Contract Fairness
The most outright shocking and direct attack made on farmers came in the form of a rider blocking USDA’s ability to finalize and enforce regulations designed to protect livestock producers from abuse by the companies with which they contract.

Inclusion of the rider leaves farmers largely unprotected from industry abuse. A regulatory issue such as this is normally a part of the farm bill process, and the use of such riders in the appropriations process is considered a duplicitous legislative tactic. These rules were first required by the 2008 Farm Bill, proposed by USDA in 2010, and upheld in the 2014 Farm Bill.

The Cromnibus bill rider:

  1. Prohibits the U.S. Department of Agriculture from finalizing a long list of livestock and poultry farmer protection regulations that had been proposed in 2010; and
  2. Forces USDA to withdraw existing poultry farmer protections that have been in place since 2011.

Rules that can no longer be implemented include protections that:

  1. Prevent industry retaliation against a farmer who speaks to her Member of Congress about unfair treatment,
  2. Increase transparency of farmer pay calculations, and
  3. Require disclosure of sample contracts.

Already completed rules that are now rescinded include a 90-day notice requirement before suspending delivery of birds to farmers, and clarification that protections apply to all breeder hen and pullet growers.

The audacity of the attack launched against livestock farmers was on full display early in the appropriations process. Rep. Kaptur offered an amendment in committee that would have protected farmers from retaliation, such as the cancellation of a contract, that results from speaking to a Member of Congress about unfair industry practices. The amendment failed in committee with 20 members voting for the right of companies to retaliate against farmers when they blow the whistle on unfair industry practices.

What Happens Next
January of 2015 will mark the beginning of the 114th Congress and the beginning of the 2016 appropriations process, which will start with the President’s budget. We’ll be keeping you updated on key issues around funding of public plant breeding, contract fairness and others.

Additional Wins and Losses

Conservation
One of the largest losses for sustainable agriculture were the massive cuts to funding for conservation programs, including $402M in cuts to the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) over 10 years, and $136M in cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) in 2015 alone.

Credit
Perhaps the biggest win for the sustainable agriculture community is a substantial increase in funding for FSA direct farm loans. Direct farm ownership loans are used to purchase land and direct farm operating loans are used to cover annual farm operation expenses. These programs received $1.5 billion and $1.3 billion in funding respectively, nearly tripling recent funding levels.

Funding for guaranteed farm ownership loans and operating loans was provided at $1.5 and $1.4 billion respectively.

The news is not good for the Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP). The program received no additional funding beyond the mandatory Farm Bill funding, which provided $3 million in mandatory funding in FY2015.

Organics
Organic program funding stayed relatively stable. The Organic Transitions Program funding remained unchanged. Within the Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives, $2.25 million is allocated for an Organic Production Survey. Such surveys of organic agriculture are crucial sources of information about organic prices and yields, information that is used by USDA to develop programs that serve organic producers. For example, USDA was directed in the 2014 Farm Bill to complete the organic prices election series, which would enable organic producers to insure crops at the organic price. However, without funding for data collection, USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) will not have sufficient information to underwrite insurance policies for organic production.

Special note to farmers: The National Agricultural Statistics Services (NASS) will be seeking farmer responses to the Organic Production Survey within the next month.

Research
Sustainable agriculture research funding received small increases in funding. The bill invests a total of $2.7 billion in research, including data collection. Funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program remained unchanged from FY2014 levels at $22.7 million. However, the current funding level is only a third of the authorized level. Funding for the Agriculture Food Research Initiative (AFRI) increased to $325 million. In addition, the bill exempts AFRI research grants from matching requirements but will require other competitive research programs to comply with the new matching funds policy.


About James Robinson

James manages RAFI’s risk management and fracking policy research. James’ risk management research was presented at the Agriculture and Applied Economics Crop Insurance & Farm Bill Symposium in both 2013 and 2014. James currently serves as co-chair of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Farming Opportunities and Fair Competition Committee. Prior to working at RAFI, James was a Graduate Intern for the Florida Senate Committee on Agriculture and a Research Assistant for the Fiscal Research Division of the North Carolina General Assembly. James holds a BA in Political Science from LaGrange College and a MS in Political Science from Florida State University.