Photo Credit: Jareed – Capitol Hill – Flickr CC

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At the intersection of food, soil, climate, farming and water.

Cromnibus – 2015’s Federal Funding Bill

Sometimes sustainable agriculture advocacy requires taking a long view. Certainly, in the ebb and flow of federal funding, Fiscal Year 2015’s final federal funding bill represents a significant ebb. As it has for many years, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to support its annual campaign to optimize federal funding for priorities set by Coalition members at the beginning of the year. But in contrast to Fiscal Year 2014 (FY14), when we made significant gains in funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, for example, and saw conservation funding emerge relatively intact, the FY15 bill’s setbacks on many fronts are especially disappointing because the process began with high promise.

Remember back just one year. Senate Democrat Patty Murray and House Republican Paul Ryan, budget chairs of their respective houses, had worked out a deal that they hoped could end the repeated fiscal impasses that have plagued Congress in recent years. By creating the big picture (budget) framework, they hoped that the two houses could pass all federal appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2014 in a timely way. At first, both houses seemed likely to meet those hopes, with timely spring subcommittee hearings followed by action by both houses’ subcommittees and even full appropriations committees. But progress stopped there mid-summer, largely stuck in partisan election-year positioning and, once again, Congress resorted to a stop-gap measure until December. When the omnibus appropriations bill finally passed in mid-December, it was not good news for sustainable agriculture.

The appropriations legislative vehicle for FY15 – termed the “cromnibus” ended up being a very bad hybrid between a short term spending extension and an omnibus appropriations bill. The deals that got struck between the two houses’ versions were largely out of reach of grassroots actions and other advocacy by the sustainable agriculture community.

We did make a few gains. For example, for the first time, Congress funded an important program intended by the Food Safety Modernization Act to offer food safety training as a scale-appropriate way to handle food safety for smaller farmers. It was the modest sum of $2.5 million, when much more is needed, but an excellent gain. And the much loved ATTRA program (aka National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service) received a slight funding increase, from $2.25 million to $2.5 million.- still not restoring its funding to levels cut in 2011, but helpful. And there were significant increases in farm credit.

But overall, NSAC’s top program priorities took a severe beating. The worst damage was done to mandatory funding for voluntary conservation programs, which were cut by $4 billion, with the Conservation Stewardship Program taking a 23 percent cut. Also, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program got no discretionary funding to augment its small Farm Bill mandatory funding, and the Beginning Farmer Rancher Individual Development Accounts got no funding. Finally, large livestock interests succeeded at last in forcing non-appropriations language into the appropriations bill to prevent USDA from implementing its rules to enforce fair market practices on the livestock industry.

So, notwithstanding our gain, and although SARE was level-funded, FY15’s appropriations bill was a disheartening end to a promising year, particularly given that funds sequestered (meaning “cut”) by a 2013 agreement will come on top of these cuts. The most useful response to the FY15 appropriations bill is that sustainable agriculture advocates have withstood bad years before and regained ground. It’s a good time to take a deep breath, remember the long view, and aim high for stronger funding in the FY16 campaign.

Photo Credit: Jareed – Capitol Hill – Flickr CC