Implementation of the new farm bill was the focus of a two-hour hearing of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday (May 7).

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testified that in the 90 days since passage of the legislation, “I’m confident we’ve made progress in every title. We focused initially on putting the disaster assistance programs in place. Over 33,000 applications have been received and $16 million has already been distributed to producers who suffered disasters after Oct. 1, 2011. We anticipate and expect that those disaster assistance payments will continue for the next several months, for sure.”

The USDA, he said, has just set up the conservation easement program established as part of the reforms.

“One of the great things about getting the farm bill done is that we were able to resume our trade promotion programs. We’re on track for another record year for agricultural trade. It will be the fifth record in the last six years.”

The nutrition title “is a strong one. We’re excited about the pilot employment and training opportunities for people (on food stamps) who are looking for work. … Those will start this fall.

“In the credit area, we’ve reduced the interest rate on the joint farmer ownership loan, cutting it in half. That will make it more feasible.”

Educational materials for the ARC (Ag Revenue Coverage) and PLC (Price Loss Coverage) programs will soon be sent out, “so producers will have a number of months to evaluate the appropriateness of either for their operation.”

Further, the Supplemental Crop Insurance option and STAX program “should be operational by the end of this year. The dairy program will be set up and functional by September.”

Mississipi disasters/catfish inspection

Queried by Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, ranking member of the committee, regarding the USDA response to producer losses due to recent tornados, Vilsack said assistance has been vigorous. “The Livestock Indemnity Program is designed to help those who have lost livestock as a result of disasters. I encourage producers to make sure to have adequate records and we’ll work with them to process applications as quickly as possible.

“We already have the programs in place, the resources are there and folks are anxious to help. We’ll also use our resources at USDA to provide for appropriate disposal. That’s also an issue in disaster situations. Our folks at APHIS will be willing to work with producers in Mississippi to make sure all the rules and regulations relative to disposal are followed, as well.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the committee, asked about the implementation timeline of new rules linking conservation compliance to crop insurance.

“It’s important to note that it was effective the day the President signed the farm bill,” replied Vilsack. “So, farmers were under this obligation and responsibility if they want to continue receiving the government subsidy for crop insurance as of, I believe, Feb. 7 of this year.

“Sometime this summer the basic structure of conservation compliance (will be ready). Most producers are already compliant because in order to get disaster assistance and other benefits under the 2008 farm bill, you had this responsibility anyway.

“We expect the roughly 6,000 producers who may be impacted by this will have until the middle part of (2015) to produce their compliance plan, to make sure it’s certified and ensure they don’t lose the benefits of the government subsidy in crop insurance. If they fail to do that, they’ll still be able to buy crop insurance but without the subsidy.”

What about the farm bill provision to help beginning farmers and ranchers by reducing the cost of insurance for the first five years of operation?

“That will be implemented before the end of this year. In addition, we’ll work with FSA offices to ensure that the reduction of the interest rate is of some assistance. We’ve also recently announced the availability of assistance from third parties to help beginning farmers and ranchers put together plans. We’re also working closely with veteran groups to create opportunities.”

Cochran also asked about the status of the USDA catfish inspection program. Long pushed for by U.S. catfish producers, the program, although authorized in the 2008 farm bill, was never implemented.

Vilsack said the USDA would send a final rule establishing the program to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by the end of May.

“The USDA has made good progress to implement policies in the new farm bill, including the catfish inspection program.  I appreciate that, but I intend to see that the food safety inspection program for catfish is successfully put in place,” Cochran said.

“The catfish inspection program was authorized in 2008 and we saw some progress then, too.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s administration has stalled the program for years. We need to make sure that cannot happen again, and it’s why we gave them clear direction in the farm bill.”

Full accounting

The USDA has provided the following information on each title:

TITLE I – Commodity Programs

    Agricultural Risk Coverage Program and Price Loss Coverage Program: On April 29, 2014 USDA began a competitive process to award funding for farm bill decision aids and outreach tools. Proposals are being accepted through May 9, 2014 and awards will be announced in May 2014.

    Supplemental Agriculture Disaster Assistance: On April 14, 2014 USDA published a final rule to implement the disaster assistance provisions. Sign up for these programs began on April 15, 2014.

    Dairy Forward Pricing Program: Final rule published on March 21, 2014, that re-established the Dairy Forward Pricing Program.

    County and Regional Loan Rates: County and regional loan rates were announced in a press release on March 28, 2014.

    Extension of Programs: On March 28, 2014 FSA published on the Federal Register notices for the extension of the following programs: (1) Marketing Assistance Loans; (2) Milk Income Loss Contract; (3) Dairy Indemnity Payment Program; (4) Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program; and (5) Sugar.

TITLE II – Conservation

    Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program: On May 1, 2014 USDA announced the availability of $20 million through this program. Applications will be accepted through June 16, 2014.

    Agricultural Conservation Easements Program: On May 1, 2014 USDA announced the availability of funds through this program. Applications will be accepted through June 6, 2014.

    Lesser Prairie Chicken Conservation Report: This report will be submitted to Congress the week of May 5, 2014.

    Conservation Programs: Applications are currently being accepted for the Conservation Stewardship Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

TITLE III – Trade

    U.S. Atlantic Spiny Dogfish Study: The week of May 5, 2014, USDA will submit a report to Congress on the existing market in the U.S. for the U.S. Atlantic Spiny Dogfish.

    Emerging Markets Program (EMP): On April 17, 2014, FAS published a Notice of Funding Availability for EMP, with $10 million available in 2014. EMP applications are reviewed on a rolling basis during the fiscal year. Applications received after May 19, 2014, will be considered for funding if funding remains available.

    Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops (TASC): On April 17, 2014, FAS published a Notice of Funding Availability for TASC, with $9 million available. Applications received after May 28, 2014, will be considered if funding remains available. The week of May 5, 2014, FAS will publish a final rule to broaden the range of projects funded by the program.

    Market Access Program (MAP): On April 16, 2014 the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) announced the 2014 funding for the Market Access Program. Sixty-two non-profit organizations received $171.8 million in funding.

    Foreign Market Development Cooperator Program (FMD): On April 16, 2014 the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) announced the 2014 funding for FMD, with 22 trade organizations receiving $24.6 million.

TITLE IV – Nutrition Programs

    Multiagency Taskforce on Commodity Programs: On April 24, the Under Secretary for FNCS signed a memorandum appointing members to the multi-agency taskforce to provide coordination and direction for commodity programs.

    Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Pilot: On April 7, 2014 FNS announced an RFP for this pilot program, which will take place during the 2014-2015 school year.

    SNAP-related Provisions: On March 21, 2014, FNS released an Implementation Memorandum to States communicating major SNAP related provisions of the Act.

    Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP): On March 10, 2014, FNS released an Implementation Memorandum to States on phasing out the eligibility of women, infants and children.

    Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) Payments: On March 5, 2014, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) released an Implementation Memorandum to States on the elimination of standard utility allowances in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for LIHEAP payments less than $20.

    Community Food Projects: On February 27, 2014, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program, with $5 million available.

TITLE V – Credit

    Microloans: On March 26, 2014, FSA issued an agency directive implementing non-discretionary microloan provisions.

    Modifications to Farm Loan Programs: On March 24, 2014, FSA issued a news release announcing changes to Farm Loan Programs as part of the Farm Bill.

    Farm Loan Programs/Direct Farm Ownership: On February 7, 2014, FSA implemented changes in the interest rate on Direct Farm Ownership loans that are made in conjunction with other lenders.

TITLE VI – Rural Development

    Business and Industry Loan Guarantee: The week of May 5, 2014, Rural Development will announce the availability of funding through this program to provide support for local or regional food producers.

    Definition of Rural Housing: On March 13, 2014, Rural Development issued guidance to State Directors, field staff and stakeholders on implementing new eligibility requirements regarding the definition of rural housing. The week of May 5, 2014, Rural Development will publish maps identifying which rural areas are eligible for housing programs.

    Rural Cooperative Development Grants: On April 29, 2014 USDA announced the availability of $5.8 million through this program.

    Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program: On April 22, 2014 USDA announced 116 project awards through this program. The total award of nearly $387 million included $150 million in grants supported by the Farm Bill.

    Value Added Producer Grants (VAPG): On March 25, 2014, Rural Development published a notice in the Federal Register extending the application period for Fiscal Year 2013 and 2014 funding for VAPG, with up to $25.5 million available for these grants.

TITLE VII – Research and Related Matters

    Agricultural and Food Policy Research Centers: On April 15, 2014 awards for these four research centers, totaling about $4 million, were announced.

    Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR): Letters soliciting nominations to the FFAR Board were mailed to interested parties and a Federal Register notice was published on April 4, 2014. Nominations are currently being reviewed.

    Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative: On March 17, 2014, NIFA released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, with $20 million available in FY 2014.

    Specialty Crop Research Initiative: On March 17, 2014, NIFA released a Notice of Funding Availability for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, with $76.8 million available in FY 2014.

    Citrus Disease Subcommittee: A subcommittee has been formally established within the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education, and Economics Advisory Board, under the Specialty Crop Committee, and solicitation letters for nominations were issued March 17, 2014.

    Budget Submission and Funding: On March 10, 2014, REE submitted its first Budget Submission and Funding report to Congress.

TITLE VIII – Forestry

    Insect and Disease Infestation: On March 19, 2014, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell sent a letter to all state governors notifying them of the opportunity to submit requests for designating their priority insect and disease areas for treatment.

TITLE IX – Energy

    Rural Energy for America Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will publish a Notice of Funding Availability announcing the availability of approximately $70 million in funding for loan guarantees and grants.

    Biodiesel Fuel Education Program: The week of May 5, 2014, REE will announce the availability of $960,000 for grants to educate consumers about the benefits of biodiesel fuel use.

TITLE X – Horticulture

    Farmers Market Promotion Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will announce the availability of $15 million through this program.

    Local Foods Promotion Program: The week of May 5, 2014 USDA will announce the availability of $15 million through this program.

    Specialty Crop Block Grants: On April 17, 2014 USDA announced the availability of approximately $66 million through this program.

    Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention: On April 3, 2014, USDA announced $48.1 million in funding for 383 projects to help prevent the introduction or spread of plan pests and diseases. Applications are being accepted through May 23, 2014.

    National Clean Plant Network: On March 24, 2014, The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced a Request for Applications (RFA) for the National Clean Plant Network, with $5 million available.

    Christmas Tree Research and Promotion Order: On April 7, 2014, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) published a notice lifting stay on the Christmas Tree Research and Promotion.

    Bulk Shipments of Apples to Canada: On April 4, 2014, AMS published a final rule in the Federal Register amending regulations under the Export Apple Act to allow bulk containers to be shipped to Canada without U.S. inspection.

TITLE XI – Crop Insurance

    Permanent Enterprise Unit Subsidy: On May 1, 2014 RMA completed the update to its systems to reflect the permanent enterprise unit subsidy as mandated by the Farm Bill. This will impact crops beginning with the May 20, 2014 actuarial filing and continue through the November 30, 2014 actuarial filing.

    Prohibition of CAT on Crops Used for Grazing: On April 15, 2014, RMA issued a guidance document to amend the Special Provisions of Insurance for the annual forage policy. This amendment sets forth the prohibition of CAT coverage on crops and grasses used for grazing.

    Premium Amounts for Catastrophic Risk Protection (CAT): On April 3, 2014, RMA issued a public release of actuarial documents to revise the premium rates charged for CAT coverage to be based on the average historical "loss ratio" plus a reasonable reserve.

    Publication of Information on Violations of Premium Adjustments: On March 27, 2014, the Risk Management Agency (RMA) established a section entitled "Rebating Violations and Sanctions" in the Frequently Asked Questions section of its public website. RMA will add information to this section when it determines that rebating violations have occurred.

TITLE XII – Miscellaneous

    Pima Cotton: On May 2, 2014 USDA announced that the Foreign Agricultural Service will accept claims under the Pima Agriculture Cotton Trust Fund for calendar year 2014.

    Catfish Inspection: On April 30, 2014 the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and Food and Drug Administration signed an MOU to improve food safety, fraud prevention, and inspection of catfish and catfish products. FSIS continues to submit monthly reports to Congress on implementation of this provision from the Farm Bill.