April 2023 Policy Connection

April 2023 Policy Connection

Congressional News

House Passes Debt Limit Framework as Negotiating Tactic

The House on Wednesday voted 217-215 in favor of Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s debt limit framework. The 320-page “Limit, Save, Grow Act” would raise U.S. borrowing authority by $1.5 Trillion or through March 2024, whichever comes first, and roll back spending levels for most federal programs to 2022 levels. In addition, the framework also seeks to: 

  • Increase SNAP work requirements “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDS) from 18 to 49 to 18 to 55. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes this could harm up to 1 million older adults facing food insecurity
  • Rescind all unobligated COVID-19 relief money from six bills enacted from 2020-2022. 
  • Repeal actions taken by President Biden to waive $10,000 to $20,000 in student loan debt per borrower. 
  • Increase domestic production of oil, natural gas and coal, and ease permitting restrictions that delay pipelines, refineries and other projects.
  • Cut clean energy tax breaks included in the Inflation Reduction Act. After a revolt from the Iwoa House delegation, however, the bill would not rescind tax breaks for biofuels. 
  • Cut $71 billion in funding for the IRS. 

House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson (R-PA-15)  endorsed this bill and its SNAP work requirement expansion, calling it “sensible.” However, this bill is a nonstarter with Democrats, including Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and does not stand a chance of making it to President Biden’s desk as is. When the framework was first announced, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) noted, “This MAGA wish list has no chance of moving forward in the Senate, and it doesn’t move us any closer than we were yesterday to avoiding default” in remarks on the Senate floor last week. 

White House Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “President Biden will never force middle class and working families to bear the burden of tax cuts for the wealthiest, as this bill does. The President has made clear this bill has no chance of becoming law.”

Local Farms and Food Act Introduced

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME-1), and Dan Newhouse (R-WA-4), along with Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tina Smith (D-MN), Peter Welch (D-VT), and John Fetterman (D-PA) introduced the Local Farms and Food Act (LFFA) in both the House and the Senate.

This legislation would: 

  • Provide streamlined grants with a simplified application for certain Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program projects of $100,000 or less
  • Reduce match requirements for certain Value-Added Producer Grants and GusNIP, making them easier to access for applicants
  • Expand LAMP to cover a limited investment in physical infrastructure, such as cold storage or equipment to improve food safety
  • Increase LAMP mandatory and discretionary funding
  • Reauthorize the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, and allow for additional discretionary funding. This program provides low-income seniors with locally grown fruits and vegetables.
  • Establish a separate review panel for GusNIP produce prescription grant applications to include health care experts

Read a section by section outline of the bill from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. 

We are also hoping to include some tweaks to the Local Agriculture Market Program through the 2023 Farm Bill, to integrate support for sustainable fibers. This umbrella program is an example of a competitive grant program that has specifically focused on building support for local and regional food systems, yet failing to integrate sustainable fibers as part of that system. SAFSF’s Fibers Farm Bill Platform is working to include and elevate sustainable fibers into a host of existing federal programs.

House Introduces the Young Farmer Success Act

Representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT-02), Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA-15), Monica De La Cruz (R-TX-15), and Nikki Budzinski (D-IL-13) introduced the Young Farmer Success Act, a bipartisan bill that would incentivize young people to enter agricultural professions by making them eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. “The average age of a farmer in the United States is 57 years old,” Thompson said. “We must encourage our youth to enter the agriculture workforce and cultivate the next generation of farmers and ranchers.”

To learn more about policy options to support the nation’s young farmers, watch the recording of the National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) edition of SAFSF’s Farm Bill Platforms from the Field series.

Recapping Recent House + Senate Agriculture Committee Hearings

Michael Regan, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Testifies Before House Agriculture Committee

On April 19th, EPA Administrator Regan testified to the House Agriculture Committee on topics ranging from biofuels to the Biden Administration’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule. Published in December 2022, this rule restores crucial protections undone by the Trump Administration and makes further revisions to the Obama Administration’s version of the rule. President Biden recently vetoed a Republican-led attempt to rescind the rule, though an upcoming Supreme Court decision may decide its ultimate fate. During the hearing, Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE-02) went so far as to declare that “Any goodwill the administration has built with farmers and ranchers is gone.” Such comments are not in line with the reality that agriculture producers were engaged in the rule’s development and are essential partners in the protection of the nation’s waterways. 

House Agriculture Committee Chair GT Thompson also critiqued what he views as EPA’s “overregulation” of the agriculture industry. Watch the full hearing or read Administrator Regan’s written testimony

SNAP and Other Nutrition Assistance in the Farm Bill

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research hosted five witnesses with backgrounds in policy and food assistance to speak about their experience using, implementing, and analyzing farm bill nutrition programs. In watching the hearing, we observed three key takeaways. 

  • Calls to cut SNAP and/or expand program work requirements are non-starters for Senate Agriculture Committee Democrats 

In his first public appearance since returning to the Senate, Subcommittee Chair Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) opened his remarks by reiterating that “lawmakers must come together and stop playing games with Americans’ access to food.” Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) used her time to note that SNAP has included work requirements since 1977, with updates made in 1996 as part of the Welfare Reform Act. She tweeted, “Unfortunately Republicans just want to find ways to make it harder and harder for people to get a little bit of help paying for food for their families during hard times. Let’s be clear, this is a nonstarter.”

  • There is bi-partisan interest in supporting and scaling evidenced-based program reform 

Hearing witness Heather Reynolds, Managing Director at the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), used her testimony to underscore that “we need to be less focused on just work requirements and more focused on evidence-based reform that will ensure we give people a way out of poverty.” In addition to Chairwoman Stabenow, Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Sen. John Boozman (R-AR), and Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) expressed support for making evidence-based adjustments to SNAP. Sen. Braun referenced that he plans to introduce the “Hand Up” Act which would “direct USDA to maintain a clearinghouse for evidence-based practices for SNAP Employment and Training.”

  • Congress must hold itself accountable to support the distribution of more nutritious food

Hearing witness Loree Jones Brown, CEO of Philabundance, a food bank serving Philadelphia and counties in South New Jersey, implored Senate subcommittee members to recognize that access to fresh produce is a top priority for the community they serve. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) highlighted the need to stress the “N for nutrition” in SNAP and reiterated his support for scaling up programs like the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GUSNIP)

Watch the full hearing or read the witness testimonies.

Making Conservation Programs Work for Farmers and Ranchers

The Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources also held a hearing to review USDA’s conservation programs with an eye toward creating greater efficiency and expanding program accessibility. The five farmers, ranchers, and policy analysts testifying as witnesses respectively implored Congress to adopt several recommendations in the 2023 Farm Bill. 

  1. Expand the capacity of USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) 

The four agricultural producer witnesses at this hearing — Paul Bruchez, rancher and owner of Reeder Creek Ranch in Kremmling, Colorado, Ray Flickner, farmer and owner of Flickner Farms in Wichita, Kansas, Jeff Rutledge, Partner at Rutledge Farms in Newport, Arkansas, and Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz, Vice President, La Merced de San Antonio del Embudo Land Grant in Dixon, New Mexico — each shared personal experiences with delays in conservation program application approval and implementation as a result of understaffed and overburdened NRCS offices. Paul Bruchez, for example, shared that it took 2 years and 9 months for NRCS to provide the technical assistance design he needed for a water diversion project under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP). Since the initial contract, the price of materials and construction has changed so significantly that it will now be a challenge for his family to afford the construction contract at all. 

To address delays like this and to make NRCS programs work better for producers and the environment alike, witnesses suggested that the agency hire more staff, with a particular emphasis on hiring and engaging community leaders with local expertise. Witnesses also suggested that NRCS should determine when technical assistance would be more efficient to outsource, and empower state and local conservationists. 

  1. Reduce bureaucratic red tape and prioritize accessibility in program applications 

Burdensome and complex program applications, as Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz noted, can make it feel like such programs are not options for beginning farmers and ranchers like him. “The role of a farmer should be to grow food, not to fill out paperwork,” he said. To ensure this reality, NRCS should improve programs and uptake through culturally competent technical assistance paired with equitable outreach, harnessing peer-to-peer farmer networks.

  1. Look to the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) Program as an example of an efficient program model 

In response to a question from Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT) about how to balance flexibility and accountability in conservation programs, Dr. Sara Porterfield, Western Water Policy Advisor at Trout Unlimited, said Congress should look toward the Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) Program and emulate its success. For example, one CIG project supported by Trout Unlimited in the Gunnison basin in Colorado took just 3 months to get under contract and is now well underway. 

  1. Incorporate the goals of the Agriculture Resilience Act 

Sen. Boozman (R-AR) expressed concern that $20 billion in funds from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) were made exclusively available for conservation programs and carbon offsets and used his time to ask witnesses about the importance of risk management programs like crop insurance. Joseluis Ortiz y Muniz smartly used his response to plug the six goals of the Agriculture Resilience Act, a marker bill recently introduced by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME-01) that would: Increase agriculture research funding, improve soil health, protect existing farmland and supporting farm viability, supporting pasture-based livestock systems, boosting investments in on-farm energy initiatives, and reduce food waste. Even Sen. Boozman had to admit, “sounds like six great pillars.”

Watch the full hearing or read the witness testimonies.

Administrative + Agency News

Biden Signs New Executive Order in Support of Environmental Justice

President Biden issued a new Executive Order, Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, aimed at further integrating environmental justice into the work of all federal agencies. The Executive Order includes seven key points: 

  • Deepen the Biden-Harris Administration’s whole-of-government commitment to environmental justice.
  • Better protect overburdened communities from pollution and environmental harms
  • Strengthen engagement with communities and mobilize federal agencies to confront existing and legacy barriers and injustices.
  • Promote the latest science, data, and research, including on cumulative impacts.
  • Launch a new Office of Environmental Justice within the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
  • Increase accountability and transparency in federal environmental justice policy. 
  • Honor and build on the foundation of ongoing environmental justice work. 

The Biden Administration simultaneously announced that it will also soon publish the first-ever Environmental Justice Scorecard, launch a White House campaign for environmental justice, expand the Justice40 initiative to include programs at the Department of Commerce, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and take new steps to combat plastic pollution in communities.

The Forest Service Announces Three New Initiatives to Combat Climate Change

In response to catastrophic wildfires and to prepare public lands for climate change, the Forest Service is shifting gears from a historical focus on fire elimination to a focus on fire prevention. 

First, as directed by a Biden Administration Executive Order, the Forest Service will be conducting an inventory of mature and old-growth forests aimed at investing in forest health and restoration and coordinating conservation and wildfire risk reduction. 

Second, the Forest Service has issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to seek feedback, particularly from Tribal communities, how to best adapt current policies to better support climate resilience. Comments must be submitted at the link above by June 20, 2023. 

Third, the Forest Service has launched the Climate Risk Viewer, a new tool to identify wildfire and climate change-driven vulnerabilities, threats, and risks in the National Forest System. 

These efforts come as the U.S. has lost a fifth of its Giant Sequoias to wildfires in the last two years alone. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore has also implored Congress to increase the agency’s funding, citing significant pay discrepancies between state and federal firefighting forces.

Value Added Producer Grant Application Open Through May 11

USDA’s Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) provides grants and matching funds to help agricultural producers incorporate value-added activities into their operations to generate new products, expand marketing opportunities, and increase producer income. VAPG is housed under the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), the umbrella program created in the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Beginning farmers and ranchers, and socially-disadvantaged farmers and ranchers are among those that can receive priority. Applications are due May 11 – we encourage you to spread the word among your grantees! We also recommend you to share this National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) webinar walking through the VAPG application process.

USDA Announces New Funding to Expand Meat and Poultry Processing Options for Underserved Producers and Tribal Communities

USDA announced $125 million in available funding for two new grant programs, both part of the broader $1 billion American Rescue Plan investment by the Biden Administration to expand processing capacity for small and midsized meat and poultry processors. 

The Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program will provide up to $50 million to improve tribal nations’ food and agricultural supply chain resiliency by developing and expanding value-added infrastructure related to meat from indigenous animals like bison, reindeer or salmon. The program will fund projects that focus on expanding local capacity for the harvesting, processing, manufacturing, storing, transporting, wholesaling or distribution of indigenous meats.

The Local Meat Capacity Grant Program will provide up to $75 million in grants to fund innovative projects designed to build resilience in the meat and poultry supply chain by providing producers with more local processing options and strengthening their market potential. This grant program is targeted to support meat and poultry processors with smaller-scale projects, with a goal to increase processing availability and variety for local and regional livestock producers.

Get Involved with the Dietary Guideline Advisory Committee

Developed every five years by USDA and the US Department of Health, The Dietary Guidelines for Americans provides overall advice on what to eat and drink to satisfy nutritional needs and informs the public plate. Specifically, the guidelines form the basis of federal nutrition policy and programs, support nutrition education efforts, and guide disease prevention initiatives. 

The 2025 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s work is underway to establish these guidelines for the upcoming five-year period of 2025-2030. Funders can engage in this process by registering for the livestream of the Advisory Committee’s upcoming meeting on May 10th and providing public comments on what the guidelines should include. 

State Legislative News

Colorado Becomes the First State to Pass a “Right to Repair” for Farmers

Thanks to a new law signed by Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) that loosens restrictions on farm equipment repairs, farmers in Colorado will be able to diagnose mechanical problems and fix their own tractors. The “Consumer Right to Repair Agriculture Equipment Act” requires manufacturers to provide farmers with tools, parts, manuals, and software information needed for repairs. This law comes after a years-long campaign by farmers who have experienced harmful delays and missed planting windows waiting for manufacturers to fix machines when they break down. 

Two other states—New York and Massachusett—have passed “Right to Repair” bills in the last two years, but neither include the agricultural equipment provisions included in the Colorado law. In 2023, 28 states have considered similar legislation that would allow greater consumer flexibility in repairing appliances. 

Further Reading

Farm Advocacy Organizations Rally Behind Checkoff Reform

USDA’s “checkoff programs” are intended to provide research and information for particular agricultural commodities, without mentioning specific producers. Historically, producers marked a checkoff box if they’d like to contribute to such programs (hence the name), but many of such programs are now mandatory. Checkoff programs have funded recognizable campaigns like “Got Milk?” but have also resulted in illegal and anti-competiive lobbying efforts by groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 

131 organizations including Farm Aid, Rural Advancement Foundation International, and Dakota Rural Action want to see checkoff reform included in the 2023 Farm Bill and submitted a sign-on letter to House and Senate Agriculture Committee leadership in support of the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act. Introduced in February by Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Lee (R-UT), this legislation would: 

  • Prohibit checkoff programs from contracting with any organization that lobbies on agricultural policy.
  • Prohibit employees and agents of the checkoff boards from engaging in activities that may involve a conflict of interest.
  • Establish uniform standards for checkoff programs that prohibit anti-competitive activity, unfair or deceptive acts, or any act or practice that may be disparaging to another agricultural commodity or product.
  • Require transparency through the publication of checkoff program budgets and expenditures.
  • Require periodic audits of compliance with the Act by the USDA Inspector General.