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Inside Washington: Woes and wows of House ag appropriations

Conservation again takes a hit from appropriators, and loan demand could outstrip additional funds.

In his opening statement of the House agriculture subcommittee on appropriations, chairman Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) said interest in the agricultural appropriations bill was higher than ever. He said the subcommittee received nearly 4,700 requests from 334 Republican and Democrat members to support, deny or amend funding levels in the numerous accounts in the bill and to include new bill or report language.

The end result has some continued surprises and some other question marks as the House advances its suggested funding levels through the committee process. Agricultural groups have their concerns with those numbers, and many steps will have to be taken before the final spending levels are set. We’ve yet to see a straight agricultural funding bill make its way to the President’s desk, and this election year doesn’t look to be any different. So, persuading those with vested interests in these funding levels will continue.

Despite a plea from 252 food and agricultural groups not to reopen the farm bill and change mandatory farm bill funding in the appropriations bill, the bill released proposes to do just that, notably in the conservation funding.

The hit to conservation programs includes $300 million from the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), $113 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and a reduction in the funds available for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to $46.5 million.

“The cuts to CSP, EQIP and RCPP are not conducive to our farmers’ conservation goals on their farms,” American Soybean Assn. president Richard Wilkins said. “We count on these programs to help us hit our conservation benchmarks, and we won’t support the significant cuts contained in the House proposal.”

In the face of similar cuts in the fiscal 2015 appropriations bill, farmer acceptance rates for both CSP and EQIP fell to about 25%, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). ”The combination of the 2014 farm bill cuts to the conservation programs plus the ongoing hit from the sequester has already reduced conservation program spending by over $6 billion,” NSAC said in a statement.

The bill provides a total of $24 billion in loan authority for the Single Family Housing guaranteed loan program, which is equal to the fiscal 2016 enacted level and the President’s request. In addition, the bill includes $1 billion in direct loans – an increase of $100 million from the fiscal 2016 enacted level and the President’s request – to meet increased demand. These provide home loan assistance for low-income rural families, many of whom would have few loan options for purchasing a home because of their geographic location. In addition, $1.4 billion, an increase of $15 million from current levels, is provided for rental assistance for affordable rental housing for low-income families and the elderly in rural communities.

The subcommittee is increasing funding for Direct Farm Operating Loans to meet the growing demand from beginning farmers and others who typically lack access to commercial capital. While NSAC said the increase is "a good start" and matches the U.S. Department of Agriculture's request, it warned that more recent data suggest that the Farm Service Agency "will be out of 2016 funding for direct operating loans by June, and absent a supplemental appropriation, a backlog will mount, requiring a higher 2017 level than requested. The current level of loan refinancing could crowd out new beginning farmer lending without a more substantial increase, so we will urge appropriators to get updated figures and adjust the program level as the legislation continues to get debated.”

Wilkins did note a significant positive in the agriculture language, point to the $3 million set aside for outreach and education on agricultural biotechnology as a step in the right direction.

“We’ve heard the leading minds in food safety and agricultural bioscience attest time and time again to the safety of biotechnology, but we’ve not done a good enough job at communicating the proven safety and the benefits of this technology to consumers,” Wilkins said. “This investment is a great initial commitment to that effort, and we applaud the House for including it.”

For more on what is included in the appropriations bill, read this related story.

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