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NAT'L SUSTAINABLE AG COALITION HOLDS ITS FIRST DC FLY-IN; LISTS ITS KEY ISSUES
Source: National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition news release

This week, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) hosted its first "farmer fly-in" of the fiscal year (FY) 2018 season. Growers from Oregon, Mississippi, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Georgia took time out of their busy schedules to bring important food and farm issues to legislators' attention as the FY 2018 appropriations cycle begins to heat up. Following the release yesterday of the President's "Skinny Budget", it is clear that legislators need to hear from the farmers, ranchers, and producers in their districts now more than ever.

With a presidential budget request that proposes slashing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by 21 percent ($4.7 billion) and cutting vital discretionary funding from rural development and conservation planning programs, it is clear that it will be up to congressional appropriators to champion the programs and policies that help rural America to thrive. Priorities of the farmer fly-in include: working lands conservation, rural economic development programs, sustainable agriculture research, technical assistance for military veteran and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and food safety training for small and mid-sized producers.

Because Congress was never able to finalize a FY 2017 appropriations package last year, all federal programs are currently operating on a continuing resolution, which freezes spending at FY 2016 levels. While the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees are rushing to finalize their FY 2017 package, they have concurrently begun the process of gathering requests for FY 2018 agriculture funding bills.

"Each year, we look to our 118 member organizations to help us set our annual appropriations priorities," said Greg Fogel, NSAC Policy Director. "Our goal is to amplify the voices of farmers and ranchers across the country, it is their stories that are the most critical to explaining the importance of USDA programs to legislators. These are the folks that are actually using the programs every day, they are the ones that will be most impacted by the decisions made here in DC."

Working Lands Conservation

Conservation funding provides farmers and ranchers with the tools, training, and financial support they need to protect and conserve natural resources on their land. Programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) not only protect the environment, they also help farmers produce more with less and ensure the long-term viability of their lands and waters.

"I'm not your typical farmer," said Joseph Benjamin Simmons II, who owns and operates Nature's Gourmet Farm in Petal, MS. "My father ran a farm when I was younger, but I didn't start out in agriculture. I knew I wanted to do something that was better for the environment and more healthy when I got into farming. EQIP helped me improve the waters and reduce erosion on my land. I've also applied for a grant to help me defray the cost of the cover crops I use to keep my soil healthy. I believe if you heal the land, it will return the favor, it will take care of you."

Although CSP and EQIP have mandatory funding through the farm bill (RCPP funding is taken from a portion of these and other conservation programs), for the past several years they have been under threat through a backdoor appropriations process called "Changes in Mandatory Program Spending" or "CHIMPS".

CSP is the nation's largest working lands conservation program by acreage, supporting farmers, ranchers, and forest owners as they introduce and expand conservation on their land in agricultural production. Combined with EQIP, which provides financial cost-share assistance and technical assistance to implement conservation practices, these two programs represent the heart of USDA's conservation portfolio. Both CSP and EQIP face cuts through CHIMPS in the FY 2017 and FY 2018 appropriations cycles.

NSAC ardently opposes any reduction in conservation program assistance to farmers, ranchers, and forest owners through the appropriations process.

Rural Economic Development

There's no denying that farmers and food producing communities around the country are struggling right now. Low commodity prices have left many in agriculture looking for ways to diversify their operations and expand their markets. Two programs that have significantly helped farmers and rural communities improve their economic viability are the Outreach and Assistance to Socially Disadvantaged and Veteran Farmers and Ranchers Program (also know as the "Section 2501" program) and Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG).

NSAC recommends that Congress appropriate $10 million in discretionary funding for Section 2501 in FY 2018. When combined with the $10 million in mandatory funding that is currently provided through the 2014 Farm Bill, the appropriated dollars would restore total funding for USDA's only minority and veteran farmer outreach and assistance program to its historic level of $20 million per year. With this increase, the Section 2501 program would be in a significantly better position to meet the growing demand for outreach and technical assistance by historically underserved producers.

"I first worked with Section 2501 back in 2009 when I was working with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives," said Ricky Owen Dollison of the Southwest Georgia Project. "As part of Section 2501 I helped teach farmers how to do soil samples, how to implement best agricultural practices for food safety, whatever they needed. It's not just about numbers with Section 2501, its about uplifting the farmers and making sure they can be successful and sustainable."

One of the most common ways for farmers to reach new markets and increase their revenues is by "adding value" to their products. When farmers take raw agricultural products like vegetables or grains and turn them into value-added products (e.g., branded sauces, spreads, bread) they not only improve their own bottom lines, but also contribute to the economic development of their communities. VAPG invests in farmer entrepreneurs by funding business and marketing plans, feasibility studies, and by helping producers acquire working capital. NSAC recommends that Congress provide $15 million in discretionary funding for VAPG in FY 2018.

"After 20 years of farming, we've figured out what works best for us," said Maud Powell, who operates Wolf Gulch Farm with her husband in Southern Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains. "We work together in a cooperative of seven farms and bring our produce to the public exclusively through the use of CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Through VAPG we've been able to build out our business thanks to planning and implementation grants. This kind of support is really critical in helping farmers like us scale-up and expand our markets."

Agriculture Research

The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program is the only USDA competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on sustainability and farmer-driven research. Farmers and ranchers help steer SARE's research priorities, ensuring that the program is constantly responding to the research challenges that farmers and ranchers face. SARE's regional delivery structure ensures that local needs are met and that all regions of the country benefit equally. SARE research results are disseminated to farmers at a much faster pace than traditional agricultural research, allowing farmers to translate research into practice in real time.

"I'm a 'recovering engineer'," said Wisconsin farmer Daniel Marquardt of Hillside Pastures farm, "so I know the value of solid science. Beginning farmers, especially those who are not from farming backgrounds, can have a hard time getting their footing in the field. SARE research grants helped me to build the knowledge base I needed when starting out; you can't overestimate the power of a good education in agriculture, especially for beginners."

Despite its importance to the future of American agriculture, SARE has been historically underfunded; in recent years the program has only been able to fund 6 percent of eligible pre-proposals for research and education grants. To begin to address the demand for innovate on-farm research and keep pace with growing environmental challenges NSAC recommends that Congress provide $30 million in FY 2018 for the SARE competitive grants program.

Food Safety Training

Over the last several years the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has implemented new Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules and regulations, but additional funding to help America's farmers and producers understand and comply with the rules has lagged.

The Food Safety Outreach, Education, Training, and Technical Assistance competitive grants program (FSOP) helps small and mid-size farms and processors comply with FSMA's new and complex food safety regulations. At the current funding level of $5 million, USDA is able to reach only a tiny fraction of the producers, processors, and wholesalers that are impacted by the new regulations. In order to ensure that small and mid-size producers can succeed under, and not be unduly burdened by, NSAC supports a doubling of the current budget for FSOP to $10 million.

"The Food Safety Outreach Program is the only program dedicated to supporting the farmers and small food enterprises most impacted by FDA's new food safety regulations," said Sophia Kruszewski, NSAC Policy Specialist. "Increasing funding for this program will ensure expanded access to locally-led outreach, training, and technical assistance - tools and trainings that are critical to food and farm business' ability to adapt to a changing food safety landscape."


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